Conferences raise unanswered questions about fact checking
The Great Fact Checking Explosion continues to ripple as we approach 2012.
Following a November event co-hosted by Jeff Jarvis and Craig Newmark at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, I recently headed to Washington, D.C., to attend another daylong fact-checking roundtable. This one was hosted by the New America Foundation.
Two fact-checking events in roughly 30 days? That’s unprecedented for me in the close to a decade I’ve been researching and writing about accuracy and related areas. In fact, prior to these two events I’d attended exactly one fact-checking event. That was more than two years ago in Germany.
After the CUNY event, I explained why I consider this a remarkable time for fact checking: "I’ve never seen more smart and talented people interested in fact checking. I’ve never seen more money and organizations lining up on the side of the debunkers. All of these things were reinforced at the CUNY event, and in the weeks since."
That was published roughly a month ago, and much has happened since. Just look at the scrutiny and criticism centered on PolitiFact’s Lie Of The Year decision, and related writing about fact checking from Forbes (twice), The Weekly Standard, ThinkProgress, Mother Jones, and The New Republic. NPR also reported on the Lie of the Year controversy. (PolitiFact is a project of the St. Petersburg Times, which is owned by Poynter.)
In defending PolitiFact's choice for Lie Of The Year (Democrats' claim that Republicans "voted to end medicare"), Bill Adair summarized his organization's momentum:
In reality, fact-checking is growing and thriving because people who live outside the partisan bubbles want help sorting out the truth. PolitiFact now has nine state sites run by news organizations around the country that employ more than 30 full-time journalists for fact-checking. We've inspired many copycat sites around the nation and roughly a dozen in other countries.
PolitiFact was also name checked during the recent Republican presidential debate in Iowa, when Michele Bachmann said, "After the debates that we had last week, PolitiFact came out and said that everything that I said was true." Of course, that statement turned out to be totally inaccurate.
New, Public Fact Checking
The oldest, most established form of fact checking was practiced at magazines like Time and the New Yorker starting in the 1920s. It was performed by an internal staff charged with checking the work of reporters. The fact checker has traditionally been invisible to the public, a part of the editorial process never meant to see the light of day. If a fact checker attracted attention inside or, god forbid, outside the publication, it was usually for the wrong reasons.
As Time magazine’s first editor Edward Kennedy, once told his cadre of checkers, “Remember that when people write letters about mistakes, it is you who will be screeched at. So protect yourself.”
The new checking is something of a reversal: the people getting screeched at are public figures and others who find themselves at the mercy of fact checkers.
Fact checking is no longer simply a part of the editorial process; it is now an editorial product.
Fact checking has gone public.
Lucas Graves, a PhD candidate at Columbia working on a thesis about fact checking, shared data at the New America event about the number of articles that are labeled as fact checks. Here’s a summary by MIT's Ethan Zuckerman:
How big is the fact checking space? Graves has searched for the term “fact check” in Nexis – he finds 153 mentions in 2004, versus 371 in 2010. At the same time, he sees a decrease in the term “ad watch,” and a brief spike around “truth squad” in 2008. There appears to be a trend towards increasing fact checking identified as such, and some convergence on the term “fact check,” and a move away from only fact checking political ads.
fact (sic) checks appear most often in September and October – in 2008, 82% of fact checks appeared in those months. But that figure dropped to roughly half in 2010.
It’s interesting data, and one interpretation is that fact checking peaks in a presidential election year. (Thus the 2008 numbers.) So we are likely in for a checking-filled 2012.
Several separate research papers were prepared for the Washington event, all of which offer insight and data. Unfortunately, they are unpublished so I can’t share details yet. On another administrative note, the session was held according to Chatham House Rule, which means I can only attribute comments to people after receiving their permission. (Zuckerman received it from Graves, and I received it from people identified in this piece.)
A final disclosure: the Open Society Institute paid for travel and accommodations to bring attendees to Washington for the event. There were also participants from that organization.
Other attendees included representatives from PolitiFact, FactCheck.org, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker blog, a number of social science researchers, non-profit workers, and journalists. If the CUNY event was characterized by the large presence of digital news folks and technologists, the New America Foundation gathering was notable for the attendance of academic researchers.
So, why the sudden interest in fact-checking? And how can we improve it? Those were among the interesting questions addressed by the group in Washington. Participants explained several motivations.
Shame/Guilt: More than a couple of participants cited the press’ failure to accurately report on WMDs in Iraq as a reason they personally view fact checking as important. In that respect, checking is a reaction to failure, a way to ensure we don’t get fooled again. Contained within that reason, it seems, is the idea that this is a way to help restore trust in the press. Hey, no pressure at all…
Making Sense of Political Communication: One participant talked about fact checking as a means to help people “break the code of political speech.” It’s a way to take the claims and talking points and provide clarity and perspective for the public. This goes to some of the origins of this public form of fact checking: ad checks. Brooks Jackson from FactCheck.org got his start in this area by helping check political ads at CNN.
A Response to Unfettered Political and Opinion-Driven Speech: This is closely linked to the above. The Supreme Court’s 2010 decision to allow unregulated corporate money to flow into political campaigns creates the need for a counterbalance. Fact checking, then, is a response to the “polarized political atmosphere” that promises to grow noisier in 2012. Others highlighted fact checking as a necessary addition to a world of raging online opinions. Fact checking, it seems, is a way to cut through the noise and the money.
A Way to Strengthen Democracy: Jason Reifler, an assistant professor of political science at Georgia State University, highlighted this as a possible reason why a myriad of people and groups are drawn to checking. In this view, a citizenry with better access to facts helps strengthen democracy. Reifler brought this up in order to caution that it's an unproven theory. He drew an analogy related to a South Park episode by referring to the “Underpants Gnomes theory of fact checking."
Underpants Gnomes are magical creatures who work tirelessly to collect underwear, with the idea that this will deliver them untold riches. But they’re missing one key element. Here’s a clip wherein one of the gnomes explains the business plan:
Here’s how Reifler expressed the “Underpants Gnomes theory of fact checking”:
Step one is fact checking and step three is better democracy or better public decision making, without the necessary, clear thought of how we get there.
A New, Digital Opportunity: This idea was expressed by PolitiFact's Adair. I asked if I could attribute the idea to him, and he sent along a quote to summarize what he said that day:
Fact checking was difficult to do before the Internet revolution. It was time-consuming and impractical to track down the original documents and reports that are critical to our research. Now they are often just a mouse-click away.
Digital journalism also makes it possible to publish our work in completely new ways that can bring our fact checking much closer to the original claim. People won't need to do their own homework to see if a claim is true. There will be widgets that will pop up right on their browser when they first see the claim.
I don’t recall anyone saying they were pursuing fact checking because it’s being demanded by the public. There was a sense that it would serve citizens and was good for journalism and democracy, but how much do we know about public engagement with fact checking?
We don't know whether people are consuming fact checking the way we imagine or if it’s helping shape their views. Does fact checking persuade people? We can't be sure yet.
That brings me to the final interesting discussion point: the idea of consequences. Can fact checking be a deterrent to, or punishment for, lying to the public?
“I’m surprised we’re not talking about how fact checking could reduce misinformation in the long term by creating consequences, creating punishment,” said Harvard’s Ethan Zuckerman at the DC event.
What would these consequences look like? Would journalists stop quoting the offenders? That seems highly unlikely. So do you note previous lies when quoting a politician? I can’t image journalists and news organizations will embrace that idea.
That said, the concept of exacting a cost for lying is appealing, and perhaps a good way to increase the impact of fact checking. One researcher at the event said “there is research that suggests people abandon behaviors and beliefs when there is a very large social cost associated with them.”
Interestingly, he made the point in the context of creating consequences for journalists, not just sources.
The participant suggested we create the “Anti-Pulitzers” for journalists who pass on misinformation.
Even journalists who pass along accurate facts could improve their storytelling. Some great long form journalism often includes elements of fact checking and debunking. But we aren’t bringing the power of narrative into the practice of public fact checking.
If you want to convince and captivate humans, weave a compelling narrative. Make it a story.
“If you're trying to change people’s opinions and believe something, you just can’t do it by saying things through intellectual means,” said one participant. “You need to have some approach to do doing this through storytelling and narrative means.”
Correction: This post originally said Ethan Zuckerman is based at Harvard. He works at MIT.