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One-to-one: Catharine Richert reflects on her job as political fact-checker at Minnesota Public Radio

Catharine RichertOne-to-one is a section of News + Views where alumni interview each other and current students. Everyone has a story to tell, from their personal interests or advocacy to professional pathways and passions. And who better to tell that story than alumni? Each article is as different as the graduates who write them. If you would like to interview a fellow alum for a future edition, please e-mail barr0396@umn.edu.

Rachel Engh (MURP '11) sat down with Catharine Richert (MPP '09) to discuss how Catharine navigated the busy election season last fall, her transition from reporting in Washington, D.C., to writing for civically engaged Minnesotans, and the skills she learned at the Humphrey School that she applies daily at Minnesota Public Radio.

How did you get your job with Minnesota Public Radio?
Before beginning graduate school at the Humphrey School, I was a reporter in Washington, D.C., where I covered Congress. When I came to Minnesota, I started working part time with PolitiFact, a website that fact-checks statements by politicians around the nation. Working with PolitiFact was a way that I could keep one foot in political journalism, the profession that I had been working in before beginning graduate school. Professor Larry Jacobs approached me during my first year to ask me if I was interested in working on a collaboration between the Humphrey School and Minnesota Public Radio (MPR). MPR was interested in beginning a fact-checking project similar to PolitiFact, so I worked on launching PoliGraph in 2010. In May 2011, I was hired as a politics reporter, so now I do much more than PoliGraph.

How did you navigate the busy election season?
Obviously PoliGraph was going to be a big part of our election coverage. We decided to focus on issues near and dear to Minnesota voters’ hearts, mainly fact-checking statements made by local candidates. We fact-checked new political ads daily! The 8th Congressional District race was one of the most expensive and competitive races in the country; money was pouring into the state from outside groups that were paying for campaign mailers, e-mails, online ads, and television ads. An outgrowth of PoliGraph during the election season was On Message, a project that involved inviting listeners to send us campaign literature they received. This way, we got to fact-check material from around the state that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise since we are located in the Twin Cities metro area. The information gleaned from On Message informed my other reporting throughout the entire election season.

What do you enjoy most about your job?
I’ve always enjoyed the reporting aspect of my job—having a question, trying to answer it, and putting the spotlight on truth. When I was a little kid, I loved Nancy Drew mystery books and I wanted to be a detective or a forensic scientist. I obviously didn’t go down that road but I think my current job is close! I view each reporting project as a mini investigation. In the end, I hope to accurately inform our listeners about important topics and pique listeners’ interest in political issues.

In many ways, I feel a lot more professionally satisfied at MPR—and in Minnesota in general—than I felt in D.C. Working at MPR has helped me fall in love with my job again. The culture here is great—my coworkers are smart and kind, and they take their jobs seriously. I learned a lot working in D.C. but it’s really refreshing to work In Minnesota. Minnesotans are very civically engaged and they follow politics really closely. I know that when I write a story, it’s going to be read by a lot of people who are going to be thinking about important issues between now and the next election.

What skills and knowledge did you gain at the Humphrey School that are valuable to you at your current job?
Despite being very difficult, I enjoyed the classes that taught me how to manipulate data because it’s a skill that is important for doing investigative reporting. Being able to collect data, organize it well, and use it to highlight a problem or explain a solution is a skill that’s at a premium right now. I also took a great half-semester class on how to conduct polls; it was really helpful because journalists don’t always interpret polls correctly. The other class I really loved was The Politics of Public Affairs taught by Professor Joe Soss because it gave me a framework to understand the political processes I observed when I was covering Congress.