A community newspaper in Forest Park, Illinois, launched a unique fact-checking initiative during the recent midterm election season, inviting readers to send campaign mailers to its journalists to check for accuracy.
Readers sent in nine mailers from various groups such as the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce & Development. Many of the mailers were referendums relating to the video gambling issue, including a mailer and a letter to the newspaper that featured comments from Firefighters Local and the Fraternal Order of Police encouraging citizens to vote against the ban. The Forest Park Review found that these statements were both true.
The newspaper fact-checked all nine mailers received from Sept. 19 until the Nov. 6 election and published the results in the online edition of the weekly paper.
In a “Dear Neighbor” mailer, the Review found that some claims were true, a few on the opinion of gambling detriments were hard to determine, and claims on resident contributions were either misleading or false.
The Review created the initiative to hold officials accountable for a platform that many candidates favor, said Jill Wagner, who is a Forest Park resident. Campaign mailers allow candidates to reach directly into the homes of voters without the filter of a media that could call them out on incorrect statements or lies.
“We can do better as a democracy and as a society,” Wagner said. “We can have a conversation about issues and agree to disagree. We don’t have to drag the community down in order to do it.”
Video gambling is a prominent and polarizing debate in the community. Citizens have been very divided about legalizing video gambling. By close results, it has been criminalized, the Forest Park Review reports.
Wagner is in charge of circulations and reader engagement at the Forest Park Review, which circulates for Forest Park’s more than 14,000 residents. She said the effort started a conversation about holding officials accountable for what they say and do.
“This is important for informing the readers,” said Nona Tepper, a Forest Park Review staffer who helped fact-check the mailers. By calling the politicians out on falsehoods printed on the mailers, the newspaper hopes to change the tone of the flyers in future elections, she said. “It’s a worthy cause.”
Tepper said facts are objective.
“It’s not something you decide on,” she said. “Find a reliable source and ask if something is true or misleading.”
As a resident of Forest Park, Wagner acknowledged that she’s approaching the process with biases. Working with Tepper, who is not invested as a resident, helps her.
For this campaign season, Tepper said she did not fact-check images. But it’s important. One mailer used a photo that claimed to be from the time of prohibition in Forest Park. Prohibition had ended by the time the photo was taken, however.
“When I think about what needs to be fact-checked with these fliers, I think I can fact-check their claims, and I also think ‘what will help voters understand what is misleading and what is true?’” Tepper said. “What information do they need to know when deciding how to vote?”
Dan Haley, Forest Park Review’s publisher, said fact-checking the mailers is a critical function.
Mailers “are often not factual,” Haley said. “Having a third party try to verify claims has a lot of value.”
Haley said he is impressed with Tepper’s and Wagner’s fact-checking efforts.
“We are in a precarious time for local news,” Haley said. “The economics of our business are very challenging. I don’t know that local news coverage has ever been more important than it is right now, and it is at risk.”