Adair describes new form of accountability journalism

September 28, 2010

Bill Adair and Thomas Patterson.

Bill Adair and Thomas Patterson.

September 28, 2010 — In his Shorenstein Center discussion, “Reinventing the News Story for the Internet Age,” Bill Adair, editor of PolitiFact and Washington bureau chief of The St. Petersburg Times, contradicted the idea that this is “a terrible time for journalism.” Adair is “optimistic about countless opportunities” for journalism, and believes we are on the brink of a “dramatic resurgence” in Internet publishing through mobile phones and platforms yet to be invented.

The emergence of the Internet has brought many new and useful tools, but Adair says that on the whole, journalists are still using the same news story forms that have been printed for a century, only now “in pixels.” This method of pasting print news in online format does not make use of the power that the Internet offers, Adair said.

His effort to reinvent the news story has been a project at the St. Petersburg Times called PolitiFact. The website tracks statements and promises made by public officials and political pundits, and rates them on their levels of accuracy. Adair explained that this kind of journalism turns the traditional story pyramid upside down — or rather, “right-side-up.” Rather than opening with a lead, PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter “buries the lead.” Each piece opens with facts, provides analysis and then presents a conclusion. Instead of a singular news story on paper, this is a “truly three-dimensional form of journalism,” Adair says, that allows many people to view the information within the context of similar stories and related facts.

Adair calls PolitiFact “a new form of accountability journalism … the kind of journalism that political reporters have wanted to practice for a long time.” He cited examples of how the fact-checking done by the PolitiFact team has held politicians accountable and often times led them to change their statements. Adair said that working on this project is “the most fulfilled I’ve been in my career,” and he challenged his colleagues to “find other ways to reinvent the news story.”

This article was written by Janell Sims and the photos taken by Leighton Walter Kille, both of the Shorenstein Center.