Poynter has launched a new podcast aimed at tackling some of the biggest challenges facing fact-checking and misinformation. Our first episode addresses a question that fact-checkers have wrangled with for years: Who should they be writing for?
To help answer that question, Brendan Nyhan of the University of Michigan and Amy Sippitt of British fact-checking project Full Fact spoke with me about who actually reads fact checks. Sippitt figured out that mostly politically active men read Full Fact’s work, while Nyhan found similar results in the United States.
“It suggests that the audience for fact-checking among people who aren’t as interested in politics is likely to lag,” Nyhan said on the show. “And it’s those people who are already highly engaged and already more knowledgeable who are going to be the core of it.”
But that doesn’t mean fact-checkers shouldn’t chase new audiences — and both Sippitt and Nyhan had thoughts about how to do that.
Below is a transcript of the full episode, edited for clarity and brevity. Read more transcripts for other episodes of (Mis)informed here.
The Bump – 00:42
Daniel Funke: The Tulsa County GOP has a small office on the south side of town, right off Interstate 44. It’s in one of those big buildings that looks like it’s ripped right out of the mid-1970s, with a fake stone facade and narrow windows. Inside, there are several cardboard cutouts of Donald Trump, and “Make America Great Again” signs cover almost all the open wall space.
I came here in September 2017 for one of my first reporting assignments for Poynter. PolitiFact, the fact-checking site that Poynter now owns, was trying to figure out why conservative voters are less likely to trust fact-checking. One night, they met with GOP leaders to talk out their differences. I tagged along to see how it’d go.
No one there was a huge PolitiFact fan, but it didn’t devolve into a screaming match either. PolitiFact explained its fact-checking process — how it finds claims to check, shares its sources publicly and doesn’t advocate for any politicians. The GOP members explained their concerns about the project’s bias. And, at the end of the meeting, they came to some kind of mutual respect for each other.
It was bizarre, kind of like watching someone try to pick a fight at a bar that never pans out. The whole time I was listening to Tulsa GOP leaders talk about PolitiFact — how they think it unfairly targets conservatives, part of a larger problem with the media — I couldn’t help but think: Who is fact-checking for? Who actually reads this stuff? And why does it seem like a lot of people still don’t trust fact checks?
DF: Today on the show, we’ll hear from two people who have spent a lot of time thinking about the audience for fact-checking.
First, we’ll talk to Amy Sippitt at the British fact-checking outlet Full Fact. She’s done a lot of work trying to figure out who’s actually reading their fact checks — spoiler, it’s usually men that are into politics.
Then, we’ll talk to Brendan Nyhan, a researcher at the University of Michigan. He’s been studying fact-checking since before fact-checking was even a thing.
The Set – 3:07
DF: As a medium, fact-checking has only really existed since the early 1990s. That’s when Snopes started to debunk weird urban legends and rumors on the internet. And from there, fact-checking has grown a lot — to more than 150 dedicated projects around the world.
And the audience for fact-checking has grown, too. It’s not just political junkies who are reading sites like PolitiFact, which got more than 120 million pageviews in 2016 alone. Now, anyone who’s interested in misinformation and the future of democracy is reading fact-checking.
To learn more about who fact-checkers are writing for, I spoke with Amy Sippitt. She’s the impact and research manager at the British fact-checking outlet Full Fact, and she’s spent a lot of time trying to figure out who exactly reads their fact checks.
DF: Hey Amy, how’s it going? Thanks so much for joining us.
Amy Sippitt: Yeah, good. Thank you. Thanks for inviting me on.
DF: When I first started this job I kind of thought that fact-checking as a concept sounded kind of nerdy, right? It’s like talking about policy wonks or avid news consumers are really into. But I’m not sure how likely, like, my mom or my grandma would read a fact check. So, what do you know about full facts audience? Like what do you know about who reads the work that you do?
AS: So we do know that most people with it that read us are people who are pretty politically interested. We ran a survey at the end of 2018. We got over two thousand people to fill out our survey, which is great. And we found that kind of the main reasons that people said that they use our work was for either to know that something in the news is correct or when they’re looking for information on a specific issue.
DF: And how does that inform your fact-checking work? Like when your team writes a fact check — do they have someone in mind or a type of reader in mind that they’re producing that work for?
AS: We know that the main people we’re trying to appeal to at the moment are people who are kind of, particularly kind of engaged members of the public. So we know that there are people who are kind of very engaged and then there are people who may be following news for particular issues.
And so we kind of target our work towards those two groups.
DF: Yeah, and just getting back to some of the surveys you’ve done, I know you’ve done some research about what kinds of audiences fact-checking reaches. And something you found is that maybe fact-checking has a women problem right? Why don’t you just sum up some of those findings for me and talk about that problem a little bit?
AS: So one of the things that we found in our survey and also just through all our data is that we tend to reach more men than women and so based on people who visit us on our website it’s kind of about 64 percent male and 36 percent female. And we’ve mostly done sort of name recognition surveys which has found that so our name recognition is roughly about three percent in the U.K. When you say which of these organizations have heard of, about 3 percent say Full Fact and more of those tend to be men than women. And then, we then spoke with other fact-checking organizations. I think it was about six who shared that data with us and we found similar trends that we were all reaching more men women. And it did vary by platforms.
So for example, on Facebook PolitiFact had a pretty close balance, actually, of men compared to women so in terms of engaged users — it was pretty roughly half-half. But then on, for other fact-checkers, say for example Africa Check, for that Francophone page, which is in Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria, there was a much larger proportion of people who are engaging with their site who are males. It was 85 percent of those engaging who were males. In terms of looking at actually why this might be, what we really need to do is look more into how does that compare to what we know already about political engagement, political knowledge.
Most of the surveys that we have suggests that men are more engaged in politics and potentially more knowledgeable about politics or at least more kind of confident in that political knowledge. So we need to kind of dig more into how much is it particularly fact-checking that’s not appealing, or is it about, or are we kind of doing as you would expect based on general political engagement? Well obviously then from there still must be things that we can be doing that would improve our appeal to women.
DF: So you know, as journalists, we’re always interested in getting as many readers as possible and getting our work in front of as many eyeballs as possible. But I’m curious, like, on a definitional level, do you think it’s fact-checking’s job is to appeal to as many people as possible? Or do you think we should be more focused on appealing to just politicians or just politically active people?
AS: I think that’s a really great question. I think for us, it’s important for us that we do reach as wide a range of people as we can and that we’re serving the well and giving them fact checks that they value and they find useful. But in our experience and the way we work, where we think fact-checking makes most differences in the accountability aspects and from the point of simply asking what is the evidence for your claim, we know that that in and of itself has impacts on politicians behavior. For example (inaudible) reached us on that.
But also then the way that we then use our fact checks not only to follow up on the, getting corrections from politicians and journalists or from changing the way that information is communicated in the first place to avoid the specific misperceptions and misunderstandings. It’s also then we use the evidence of our fact checks more widely to look for more, to look for what systems need changing and then campaigning for that change.
And I think that’s where fact-checking, where we find fact-checking can make the most difference is about using the fact checks — it’s the base for what we do. But then looking for what actually needs to change and what actually it’s not, it’s not just about identifying once something is being said what is inaccurate, but actually looking for how we prevent inaccurate claims from coming back in the first place and how do we make sure that public debate is based on really solid evidence.
DF: Amy, thank you so much for being here. I really appreciate it. AS: Thank you so much.
The Spike – 10:02
DF: From what we’ve heard, fact-checking has a women problem. It has a political problem. And, as a still somewhat niche medium, it has a visibility problem.
So what are fact-checkers doing wrong? How can they more effectively communicate with readers? And who would benefit the most from reading fact checks? Brendan Nyhan, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, doesn’t think the answer is necessarily just one type of person or group.
DF: Hi Brendan how’s it going? It’s been too long.
Brendan Nyhan: Great to be here. Thanks for having me.
DF: Thanks for coming on the show. So this whole episode is about the audience for fact-checking. And you’ve done a lot of great research in this area. Based on some of your work who reads fact checks. I think fact checkers have an idea about this. Journalists have an idea about this but what does research tell us about.
BN: Yeah, so in 2014 we actually Jason Reifler and I went out and did surveys asking people who reads fact checks and how did they feel about it. And what we found is it was really people who were the most politically engaged, the most politically interested and knowledgeable, people that had the highest sense of political efficacy, people who tended to be more educated. So all of these groups tended to be more interested in reading fact checks than other groups.
DF: So walk me through like some of that research, how did you figure out that it was the most politically active people reading fact checks?
BN: So we asked people to self-report how interested they were in politics, which has been shown to be a good indicator of people’s overall level of engagement with politics and the news. We asked people what their high school education was, how effective they thought they would– They were at getting change to the political process, how responsive they felt that political institutions were to them. And then finally we asked a political knowledge scale, which is a series of questions that validate how much people tend to know about politics. It’s a kind of proxy for political sophistication, things like how long is a term in the U.S. Senate, who is the prime minister of the United Kingdom, and so forth.
DF: Right. And were you surprised by these findings? To me, it seems kind of obvious that politically minded people would be interested in fact-checking. What did you think of the findings?
BN: No I wasn’t, I wasn’t surprised. We thought it was important to show, however, because it’s often thought that fact-checks are going to reach people who want to know more about politics. And that’s true. I mean you know there are lots of those people who are, have high levels of political interest in politics and want to know more. But what it suggests is that the people who actually know somewhat less about politics and follow it less closely will be less likely to be reached by fact checks. So it suggests that the audience for fact-checking among people who aren’t as interested in politics is likely to lag. And it’s those people who are already highly engaged and already more knowledgeable who are going to be the core of it.
DF: That seems like a problem, right? It’s like you know the people who actually need to read the fact checks aren’t the ones who researchers are showing us are interested the most in fact checks. What do you think, like, fact-checking projects like PolitiFact and others are either doing wrong or could do more of to reach some of those audiences that maybe need their work more than others?
BN: Good question. I think the way fact-checking has become embedded in political journalism more broadly increases their reach. So you can think of fact-checking as in part a direct to consumer business, that you’re providing those fact checks directly to those people who visit Factcheck.org or PolitiFact.com and The Washington Post Fact Checker. But what you’re also doing is reaching people indirectly, not just through the people who pick up that content in a syndicated fashion, but to the other journalists who are citing it, right? And so when debate moderators draw in fact checks or when other journalists feel more comfortable asserting a fact as true because it’s been validated by a fact-checker, then that’s starting to bring those facts out into mainstream political coverage in a way that’s going to reach a larger audience.
So I’m hopeful that the reach of fact-checking itself is broader in that way. But it always is going to be necessarily limited. I think that’s maybe another reality here. The audience for fact-checking isn’t everybody. It’s a very specialized form of political news, you have to have a lot of context to even understand what they’re talking about in many cases. And you know for someone who’s not following politics closely, I think fact checks are often quite confusing. And I guess what I would say is that’s fine. They’re never going to reach everyone. Jason Reifler and Andrew Guess and I found that about one in four Americans went to one of the fact-checking sites in the weeks before the 2016 election. That sounds about right to me, but again they may be reaching people in all these more indirect ways.
They may also be helping to constrain politicians through the threat of being held to account and also influencing political journalism to be more fact-based. And so in all those reasons, in all those ways they can, they can reach a larger audience and have a potentially larger effect than their audience size might suggest.
DF: You just touched on something that I think is the crux of this episode, it’s, you know: Is fact-checking for political junkies? Is it to inform generic news consumers? Or is it to influence the way politicians approach statements in the public sphere? And I’m curious if you have an opinion based on your own work, like, which of those you think should be or is the prominent audience or fact-checking, and how that should either change or might change in the future?
BN: I’d say it’s all of the above. I guess what I hope to contribute to this debate is to say that we should broaden out the conversation about the effects of fact-checking beyond the hardcore political news audience, and think about these other ways in which fact-checking can have potentially positive effects. We don’t have to pick one. I think fact-checkers define their mission as helping create a more informed electorate and giving people the information that they want or need. And that’s fine.
I think that’s how journalists tend to think about their role. More generally they don’t like to think of themselves as political actors or influencing the actions of politicians. But of course they are. And I think it would be, it would be foolish to neglect that part of the influence of fact-checking. Just would be foolish to neglect how they’ve been influential within journalism. So I guess what I would say is, you know, it’s certainly the case that fact checkers should think about how to broaden their audience and impact but we should also be realistic that the way they define their mission limits the extent to which they’re willing to think about these options and engage in the kinds of efforts that one might undertake if your goal was more directly to influence politicians or to have influence in the debate in broader ways.
DF: Interesting stuff. Brendan thanks so much for being here. I really appreciate it.
BN: My pleasure.
This episode of (Mis)informed was produced by Vanya Tsvetkova, an interactive learning producer at Poynter’s News University. It was edited by Alexios Mantzarlis, with additional editing and creative direction from Alex Laughlin.