Study: Political journalists opt for stenography over fact checking during presidential debates

During the 2012 U.S. presidential debates, political journalists on Twitter primarily repeated candidate claims without providing fact checks or other context, according to new research published in The International Journal of Press/Politics.

Authors Mark Coddington, Logan Molyneux and Regina G. Lawrence analyzed tweets from 430 political journalists during the debates to see how much they engaged in the checking of candidate claims. The resulting paper is “Fact Checking the Campaign: How Political Reporters Use Twitter to Set the Record Straight (or Not).”

They also examined whether the political journalist’s tweets fell more into the construct of traditional objectivity or what they call “scientific objectivity,” which eschews he said/she said in favor of empirical statements and analysis, i.e fact checking.

They found that 60 percent of the journalist tweets “reflected traditional practices of ‘professional’ objectivity: stenography—simply passing along a claim made by a politician—and ‘he said, she said’ repetition of a politician’s claims and his opponent’s counterclaim.”

Journalists largely repeated the claims and statement of candidates, rather that check or challenge them.

“Our data suggest that fact checking is not the most prominent use to which Twitter was put by reporters and commentators covering the 2012 presidential election,” the authors write. “Indeed, only a fraction of tweets in our sample referenced specific candidate claims at all.”

A missed opportunity

The researchers chose to look at tweets during the debates because debates are “central to the practice of political journalism and fact checking.”

They also wanted to see if fact checking was a big part of political Twitter during debates to get a sense of “how the emerging journalistic practice of fact checking manifests itself in a continually flowing information environment marked at its core by a fading distinction between fact and opinion.”

In the end, 15 percent of the tweets reflected the traditional fact-checking approach. These tweets saw journalists “referencing evidence for or against the claim and, in a few cases, rendering an explicit judgment about the validity of the claim …”

The data showed that checking was done more frequently by those in the data set who identified themselves as commentators rather than reporters. This again suggests that traditional notions of objectivity may be a factor.

Coddington, the lead author and a doctoral student at the University of Texas-Austin, said he and his co-authors believe journalists are missing an opportunity by not challenging and checking claims.

“Debates are a prime opportunity to challenge and confirm factual claims in real-time on Twitter to a public that’s paying real attention — a perfect spot to cut through the rhetoric of the campaign and play the informational role that journalists are capable of doing so well,” Coddington said. “Journalists aren’t, by and large, doing that, and they should, especially in a situation where audiences may be looking for someone to help them sort through the claims that are coming at them at a bewildering pace.”

The lack of checking was something of a surprise to him, as the researchers chose to look at fact checking on Twitter during the debates because they had seen so much of it in their feeds at the time.

I asked him why in the end there was so much stenography.
“Much of the debate analysis on Twitter fell into the category of what’s often called ‘horse-race’ journalism or commentary on strategy,” he said. “In other words, a lot of it was about what a candidate might have been trying to do strategically with statements in the debate, or the likely reception of those statements. As it related to the factual claims the candidates were making, these tweets fell into the stenography category — the journalists were simply passing on the claims, true or not, without any comment on their factual correctness. They weren’t concerned with whether the claims were true, only whether they would help or hurt the candidate.”

Challenge of real-time checking

One other factor may be that political journalists find it difficult to keep in the real-time flow of a debate and do checking at the same time.

Bill Adair, the founder of PolitiFact and now the Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke, said it’s notable that journalists were able to do fact checking during such a fast moving event.

“It’s important to remember the nature of the event: It is a rapid-fire, largely unscripted free-for-all and reporters are trying to listen with one ear and still produce some tweets with value,” Adair said. “So there isn’t much time for reflection and verification. I’m happy to see that they manage to produce as much fact-checking as they do.”

It is indeed a challenge to do real-time fact-checking when you have no idea what candidates may say at any given moment. In an interview with me in 2012, the Associated Press’ Cal Woodward explained how they scale up their fact checking efforts for debate night:

We have anywhere from three to six or more people who are sitting at home or in the office watching a debate. When they hear something they’ll flag it and tell my editor [Jim Drinkard], who is the gatekeeper, and he will make a call if we think it’s strong enough to be developed. Sometimes they give me an item that’s pretty much already written, and I’ll slip it in.

It takes planning and execution to deliver fact checks at debate speed.

But it must also be said that journalists don’t have to be constantly tweeting during a debate. If you assume that people interested in the debate are watching it live, then your tweets need not be stenography — which is exactly what 60 percent of the ones gathered for this study were.

Why bother repeating what most people just watched and heard the candidate say? It may take a few minutes more to hunt for the source of a claim, or to offer context. But that’s arguably more valuable. So too is waiting until you have something to say, rather than rushing to transcribe something your followers are watching.

“For all the talk about Twitter as revolutionary journalistic tool, what we and others have found is that political journalists tend to use it simply to snark, talk strategy, and link to their work,” Coddington said. “Those are all fine ways to use Twitter, but that’s a big journalistic whiff if it’s not being used for anything more substantial than that.”

***

A final note on methodology for those interested: Their final data set included 17,922 tweets sent by the journalists beginning “one hour before each debate began until noon Eastern Time the following day.” The news organizations represented among the 430 journalists included a mix of large print outlets, broadcasters, cable news, online outlets, NPR and the AP. The authors attempted to mix national reporters with regional ones, and  17 percent of the journalists had bios that included words such as “commentator” or  “analyst.”  The authors felt they might be more inclined to offer opinions. That was born out in the data that showed these people did more fact-checking than others.

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