Breathe easy: This article is not about the U.S. presidential election.
Half of Americans think scientists are divided on the existence of the "Big Bang." (Cosmologists are virtually unanimous that happened.) Among those over 40, about four in 10 think Medicare will pay for their long-term elder care. (It won’t). A survey by research company Ipsos MORI found that people in 14 countries massively overestimated the percentage of underage girls who get pregnant, the number of Muslims in the country and, in most places, the proportion of immigrants.
Despite this, few outlets are devoted to fact-checking claims about science or health, finance or education — if they are made outside of the political realm. The most comprehensive database of the genre, compiled by the Duke University Reporters’ Lab, lists over 100 active fact-checking outlets around the world. By our reckoning, all 112 cover politics at least occasionally, even if they do it through the lens of another topic. Most cover politics almost exclusively.
So — 2016 or no — why does fact-checking focus so overwhelmingly on what comes out of politicians’ mouths? Does it have to be this way?
As fact-checking is currently practiced, politics is baked in. In his book "Deciding What’s True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism," University of Wisconsin professor Lucas Graves says U.S. fact-checkers consider their craft a reaction to journalism’s failures over the last few decades.
Those failures include stenographic reporting, cozy relationships with sources and an emphasis on "horse races" over substantive issues — all problems that have become manifest in the political sphere.
But fact-checking may not have started out as political. Michelle Amazeen, a communications professor at Boston University, traces the practice’s origins to early 20th-century muckraking journalists such as Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell, Samuel Hopkins Adams and George Seldes. Adams, for example, wrote about dangerous patent medicines, whose manufacturers made unsupported health claims.
In the 1940s, Seldes used his newsletter In Fact to challenge claims by big business. Amazeen argues that these journalists lay the groundwork for Consumers Union — the publisher of 80-year-old product testing magazine Consumer Reports — and for fact-checking in general.
Right now there are scattered examples of fact-checkers focusing on non-political topics — although political connections rarely seem to be far from their mind. Howard University’s Truth Be Told concentrates on African-American issues. FactCheck.org’s SciCheck evaluates scientific claims related to public policy. The Conversation’s Australia edition taps academics to address topics ranging from the economy to mental illness to environment (the U.K. edition has been rather consumed by Brexit of late). Africa Check places a strong emphasis on development and runs a Health Check vertical through its partnership with PolitiFact.
And Gossip Cop, a website that rates celebrity stories from 0 (Rumor) to 10 (Real), will soon add a little glitz to the Duke listings.
Duke’s definition of fact-checking requires that the outlet assess the accuracy of discrete statements. But what if journalists are just thinking too narrowly about what makes a good fact check? For example, the website Climate Feedback uses line-by-line annotation to critique climate-related articles in the media — effectively fact-checking many statements at once. Jane Elizabeth, senior manager of the Accountability Journalism Program at the American Press Institute*, gives a more unusual example: Billy Penn’s investigation into the question, "Why can’t you get a hot Krispy Kreme in Philadelphia?"
Some of these examples might seem to blur the boundary between fact-checking and explanatory journalism. To Elizabeth, such an approach isn’t an aberration — it might just be what fact-checkers should aim for.
“Any story like that that takes an issue, not necessarily a statement but an issue, that people are wondering about or don’t understand, and goes into the deep background of ‘why this is happening,’ that has all the hallmarks of a fact check, and that’s what we want to see more of,” she says.
Duke Reporters’ Lab co-director Mark Stencel offers another potential reason why so much fact-checking is political: some beat reporters are afraid of alienating sources. A crime reporter, for example, might find it hard to fact-check criminal justice issues and still maintain his relationship with lawyers, judges and the police. "One of the things you hear from people who fact-check full-time is it changes their relationship with sources," he says. "For some reporters on some beats, overtly calling out a misstatement sometimes is challenging."
But Elizabeth argues that a more expansive approach — both in subject matter and in format — is exactly what fact-checking needs. "For this type of journalism to survive and be more impactful, you’re going to have to move beyond checking whether somebody lied or not. That can be very limiting and politically divisive."
That gets at perhaps the most perplexing part of this dilemma: the double-edged sword of "demand." Some, like PolitiFact staff writer Jon Greenberg, argue that politics "is what readers want." And certainly there is demand of another sort, since the motivated reasoning sparked by partisan politics feeds our appetite for misinformation — an appetite that unscrupulous publishers are all too happy to stoke.
Many other topics don’t spark anywhere near the same level of defensive, ideological thinking that politics does. For example, an API-sponsored study of 1,020 people by Amazeen, Graves, Emily Thorson of Boston College and Ashley Muddiman of the University of Kansas found that when a politician’s incorrect statement got fact-checked, attitudes towards the politician didn’t change significantly — people used party affiliation to maintain their existing attitudes.
But when fact-checking exposed a misstatement by a breakfast cereal executive, people’s attitudes towards the speaker did change.
That suggests that if journalism is trying to build its trust capital, perhaps it should devote more resources to fact-checking breakfast cereals and doughnuts.
Of course, product fact checks come with another potential consequence for the bottom line: Most journalism depends on advertising for its revenue. But there are ways around this. Amazeen notes that Consumer Reports accepts no ads and argues that stronger public media could foster similar efforts. The Sweethome and The Wirecutter — which arguably act as consumer product fact-checkers — earn money through affiliate links. The New York Times recently bought the twin sites for a reported $30 million.
Even the most seasoned political fact-checkers have seen the impact other types of investigations can bring. The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler notes that in 2015, he and colleague Michelle Ye Hee Lee ran a series examining "dubious statistics," on topics including child abductions, women’s income, and human trafficking.
"Interestingly, these stories had some of the biggest impact of anything we’ve done," Kessler says. "Lots of websites were scrubbed, statistics were rewritten or dropped, new social science research was launched, etc. I even got called from politicians thanking me for bringing this to their attention."
"So we will continue to look for material like this, especially once this damn election is over!"
* The author has worked as a consultant for the API, where her projects included publicizing work by the researchers cited in this piece.