7 Smart Thoughts About Fact-Checking

In the aftermath of the conventions, we know politicians aren’t exactly clear or honest in their speech, and the press handling of it opened up an interesting can of worms.

As BuzzFeed reported, Romney’s aides (specifically pollster Neil Newhouse) laid down the law:

Fact checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs, and we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.

After which (but not only because of), a flurry of writing and thinking about fact-checking in journalism ensued. Here are seven thoughts from that writing and thinking, that are interesting and insightful and worth nestling into the back of our minds to fortify the lenses with which we continue to watch politicians avert the truth, while journalists seek it. —Jihii

1. What’s the purpose of pointing out lies in the first place?

Kevin Drum at Mother Jones, lays out the conundrum. What if, as Greg Sargent said in our post last week, it turns out that when the press calls a lie a lie, nobody cares? Drum writes: 

There are two big problems with getting obsessed about “lies.” The first is that it’s usually too hard to prove. You have to show not only that something is unquestionably factually wrong, but that the speaker knew it was wrong. That’s seldom possible. The second problem is that it’s too narrow. Politicians try to mislead voters all the time, and only occasionally do they do this with flat-out lies. Bottom line: if you focus only on actual lies, you miss too much. But if you try to turn everything into a lie, you sound like a hack.

Most importantly, he offers a three step evaluation method to check statements in question.

2. What is effective fact-checking and how can journalists become more effective in reducing misleading claims?

Brendan Nyhan of the Columbia Journalism Review, highlights some of the broader issues in his criticism of the morning-after coverage of Paul Ryan’s RNC speech and it’s falsities:

The underlying problem with these analyses is the misguided conclusion that factchecking is a failure if it does not eliminate deception. From a scientific perspective, however, factchecking is effective if it reduces the prevalence of misleading claims relative to an otherwise identical world that lacks factchecking, which seems likely to be the case (though we lack direct evidence on this point).

Given current levels of polarization and media distrust, many voters will remain unpersuaded by factchecks, which in turn reduces the incentive for politicians to care what the media says. But journalists rightly espouse a creed that their highest duty is to the truth, not the marketplace or the people they cover.

And he offers some suggestions:

With that said, journalists could be more effective in responding to a pattern of false claims. First, they should remember to continue to remind readers—some of whom are just starting to tune into the campaign—that claims like those in the welfare ad are bogus.

Second, as The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta has argued, reporters should cover a pattern of false claims as an ongoing story rather than ignoring it as old news.

3. Fact-checking alone is not enough.

Jay Rosen, in his wonderful Jay Rosen way, contextualizes things a bit:

If we start back in the 1990s and read forward to the current campaign, we see distinct phases of innovation as political journalists react to misleading ads: first, the ad watch phase in the 90s; there was some mention of misleading elements, but the final tally was about effectiveness, or what I call “savvy.” The limitations of the ad watch led to direct fact-checking by the press, where actual grades are handed out. The emphasis is on judging truth and falsehood, not assessing effectiveness. So now we’re in a new phase: fact checking alone is not enough. The campaigns seem able to override it, which does not mean they override it equally or with the same vengeance. So what’s the next innovation?

4. Why is fact-checking in a separate category than reporting?

Dan Conover on Xark (via the Washington Post) brings up, quite succinctly, the fact vs. reporting journalistic culture we’re living in:

What we call “fact checking” is simply traditional journalism dressed up in a modern gimmick. Poli-Fact and Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post aren’t doing anything that couldn’t be done in news stories. That we now place “fact” in a separate category from standard political reporting is a testament to a broken system, yet it doesn’t change the system.

5. Is the press reluctant to delve into substantive issues for fear of being seen as biased, and instead hides behind neutrality?

Emilly Bell at The Guardian writes:

A major news network that doesn’t say, even as the ovation continues, “hang on a minute”, is surely falling short. The reluctance of American journalists to tackle the substantive issues raised by politicians, lobbyists, pressure groups and others for fear of being seen as “biased” forms part of a culture of “neutrality” that is essentially driven by economic forces but which is presented as an ethical touchstone.

The existence of a “fact-checking movement” which runs parallel to, but is not part of, the press shows how disjointed the process of informing the public has become. So much so that a former public editor of the New York Times attracted some ridicule earlier this year when he asked if it was the job of journalists to be “truth vigilantes”.; given the prevailing conditions, however, one can see why he was asking the question even it if was phrased in a rather unfortunate way.

Every one of the 15,000 editors, correspondents, producers, gofers and commentators who packed into the convention last week should be asking themselves the same question. If the job of journalism is to strengthen democracy, and if you can’t move in downtown Tampa for accredited press, why did Ryan and his team of speechwriters produce something so wilfully misleading? The ugly truth is, they did it because they could.

6. Fact-checking isn’t just about truth v. falsehood. 

James Pogue, in the Oxford American, a fact-checker himself, though not writing about political fact-checking, sheds some interesting light on this:

Not to be cute, but imprecision might not even be a very precise way of explaining what I’m looking for. But I’m certainly not just looking for falsehoods. Smaller research departments, or magazines that rely on interns, generally don’t have the time, money, or will to do much beyond trying to figure out what’s wrong in the piece, but our approach is much more abstract.

7. Effective fact-checking requires portions of wisdom, judgement, and perspective that are difficult (but so important) to manifest in proper balance.

And Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic, explains that very necessity by walking us through the fact-checking of a covert assassination program:

Insofar as fact-checking is an attempt to channel the spirit of what he is doing, I’m all for its spread. Insofar as fact-checking is an attempt to avoid the most difficult things about what he did, or to erect a substance-less bulwark against the inevitable blowback from those who disagree with one’s analysis, I am wary of fact-checking. Without judgment and perspective, fact-checking gets us a national media that treats a campaign argument about when a plant in Janesville closed as a news-cycle capturing, watershed moment in dishonest politicking; while years of deliberately misleading Americans about a covert assassination program is basically ignored.


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  4. absentminde reblogged this from futurejournalismproject and added:
    Every reporter ever, read this
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  6. tatrtotz reblogged this from truth-has-a-liberal-bias and added:
    A-fucking-men. As Jon Stewart said, “When did fact checking become separate from journalism?”
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    Also making the Internet rounds
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  16. nnyleuqcaj reblogged this from faruhanu and added:
    It’s a long post, but a great read. Very thought provoking and interesting, especially if you’re interested in politics...
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  18. sethiswhatever reblogged this from truth-has-a-liberal-bias and added:
    the comment above ^. To sum up, fact checkers are, apparently, too biased in their analysis (bullshit), and that...
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