Who decides what’s true in politics? A history of the rise of political fact-checking
Fact-checking may have gone mainstream in recent years, but it's still controversial.
That's according to Lucas Graves, a professor and former magazine journalist who wrote the newly released "Deciding What’s True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism."
Graves, who teaches journalism at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, spent hundreds of hours over the past five years interviewing the leading voices of the political fact-checking movement in the United States, researching the historical foundations of fact-checking and watching fact-checking in action — even writing a few fact checks himself.
What he discovered was a journalistic project struggling to bring clarity to political reporting, where — many admit — the truth is not always black and white. His book examines how fact-checkers strive to make definitive calls on controversial and politically charged questions of fact while attempting to maintain an objective, non-partisan position in our democracy.
In this edited transcript of our conversation, Graves explains the history of the movement, who exactly counts as a legitimate fact-checker and how the 2016 election is changing the fact-checking landscape.
You describe fact-checking in a number of ways, some of which are contradictory. It’s a reform movement, but it’s also institutionalized. Fact-checkers make the calls but say that people are free to disagree with them. They’re not scientists, but they attempt to be scientific. Why is it so hard to say what fact-checking is?
With an emerging movement like this, it’s inevitable that people are going understand it differently.
I think that it’s exactly in those differences that you start to see some of the interesting tensions in this project. The most important one, which I think you hit on, is the question of how fact-checking approaches objective truth. Fact-checkers very much want to reject the tradition of “he said, she said” reporting.
The whole project is premised on the idea that journalists should push past competing claims and help readers decide what the truth is, but at the same time, facts are slippery things so we have to recognize that people aren’t always going to agree with their conclusions.
In the book you mention that fact-checking is sometimes presented as simply what good journalists should be doing anyway: seeking the truth and telling the truth. But on the other hand, it’s also something totally new. How can that be?
Journalism is always committed to speaking the truth, but how journalists understand that can change over time. Historians of journalism point to the emergence of the objectivity norm in the decades after World War I. That represented a break from what had been a tradition of partisan reporting in the previous century.
Even as journalists became committed to this style of nonpartisan reporting, they have also constantly tried to improve their methods and to account for ways that political actors might try to game journalists’ methods. A striking example of that was the Red Scare in the 1950s. It’s just one of many episodes that journalists look back on with some shame, pointing out the ways that a politician can take advantage of journalists’ commitment to report claims accurately in order to spread misinformation.
It’s through episodes like the Red Scare that journalists over time have become more and more willing to interpret the political world for their readers. Fact-checking is really the latest expression of that analytical impulse that you can see growing for more than 50 years.
So what spurred this latest expression of that analytical impulse?
The emergence of the internet as a vehicle of professional journalism really makes it possible for these dedicated organizations to practice fact checking in a different way: to launch these sites that are dedicated exclusively to fact-checking; to do research; and to show their research in a way that wasn’t as easy in traditional media.
But the internet is also the reason they need to do this, because it’s so easy now for people to find claims that support their views and be exposed to really wild misinformation.
There’s another journalistic practice that’s also referred to as “fact-checking,” by which I mean the process of in house fact-checkers confirming facts before an article is printed. What’s the relationship between the internal verification processes that journalists put their own work through and external fact-checking, specifically the political fact-checking that your book examines?
I think they’re really different in terms of their mission and their approach. Both of these practices are concerned with accuracy and they both can raise similar sorts of questions about how to establish whether something is true or not.
But the goal of traditional fact-checking, as you say, is to make sure that something is accurate before it’s made public. Whereas, these new political fact-checkers are challenging claims that have already been made public. What that means is they are directly confronting the people who made those claims.
The understanding of objectivity that fact-checkers promote requires journalists to be unafraid to take sides in factual disputes, but that also ends up meaning that their work becomes more political in the sense that it’s directly contradicting public figures, directly engaging in political arguments. We see the results of that very clearly when fact-checkers are constantly accused of being partisan.
Fact-checking views the political world through a skeptical lens. And yet, as you say, members of the public and politicians are sometimes skeptical of fact-checkers themselves. Does fact-checking improve trust in journalism, or make it worse?
Trust in journalism along with trust in other public institutions has been falling pretty steadily for several decades.
If you ask journalists, one reason to do fact-checking is that it can help to rebuild public trust to have journalists unflinchingly digging for the truth behind these political statements. But there’s every reason to believe it also will just contribute to the perception that journalists are biased, that they can’t be trusted.
It’s hard to say what the actual effect of the growth of fact-checking will be on people’s level of trust in journalism. I certainly hope that nonpartisan fact-checkers doing this work consistently over time can demonstrate to people that they are independent and that their only commitment is to the truth, not to one ideology or another, but that’s really hard to do.
You mention that fact-checkers have adopted some of the standards and practices of early bloggers, like transparency and linking to sources. How has an ideal like transparency been embraced by the fact-checking movement?
Transparency is sort of a watchword today in a way that it wasn’t 30 years ago. Fact-checking in particular really relies on the idea that journalists have to show their work precisely because that work invites suspicion. One of the ways to establish that you are not partisan, and one of the ways for journalists to engage in this uncomfortable act of taking sides in active political debates is to lay out as clearly as possible the process that leads them to each conclusion.
Traditionally journalists have wanted to keep some of their background work hidden, because they’re enmeshed in a real-world political environment that requires them to continue to have access and relationships with sources they are reporting on. Transparency has been difficult for political journalists especially. But fact-checking really demands it.
Bloggers did do a lot to promote this ethic of transparency, especially in their critique of journalists. Bloggers have long called for journalists to publish their interview notes for example, and I really see professional fact-checking as a response to blogging’s critique of journalism. For instance, linking so heavily to sources, analyzing claims at length, really taking apart documents. That’s the kind of writing that bloggers specialized in. It really helped to define the medium. Fact-checking is sort of professional journalism’s answer to that.
But fact-checking is different from blogging, as you examine in detail in your book.
Fact-checkers are at pains to show that they have credentials, that they’re legitimate professional journalists; that they’re not partisan and have professional experience and resources.
Early on, the audience they were really concerned with was other journalists. If you’re trying to establish this new genre of journalism, the thing you care about above all is that your peers take it seriously, that they understand it as a legitimate kind of objective journalism.
There was an effort announced this year to create a Fact-Checker’s code. What do you think of this idea?
It’s tricky. I was at some of the meetings where the code was discussed. The most interesting thing about it from my point of view is that the push to create that code really comes as fact-checking has grown around the world.
When you look at this wider global fact-checking scene you see this incredible diversity. There are a lot of fact-checkers who don’t consider themselves journalists. They do claim to be objective and independent, but they don’t come out of the world of journalism. They might have backgrounds as activists or political reformers. Or in some cases have ties to academia. So there’s this really wide array of professional backgrounds and institutional ties in the fact-checking world.
I think the question of best practices among the U.S. fact-checkers isn’t such a big one. But what is interesting is that mainstream fact-checkers consider partisan fact-checkers to be untrustworthy regardless of their methodology.
It wouldn’t matter how carefully Media Matters laid out the steps it takes to fact-check a claim on Fox News. As long as it continues to only check claims from the right and as long as it has direct ties to the Democratic Party, then the mainstream fact-checkers aren’t going to take it seriously. They aren’t going to see it as legitimate.
So I wonder how exactly the code of ethics will address that. It’s not just the question of the research steps you take but also a question of establishing your independence and a willingness to check claims from different parties.
You call fact-checking a genre. And, of course, once you have the defined parameters of a genre, you can also be parodied and spoofed. We see it with the Daily Show’s “What the Actual Fact,” and other pop culture references. That’s a sign that the genre is catching on with the public, isn’t it?
I completely agree with that. The fact that you can spoof it, and "What the Actual Fact" is a great example of that, or the fact that you can export it to new contexts shows that it is established, that there is a baseline that people kind of understand in common, that acts as a reference point.
Of course PolitiFact’s Pulitzer is also a good sign that fact-checking has arrived.
Yeah, and that came pretty early if you think about it.
I have to ask you about this election season. How will 2016 change fact-checking? Have you already seen changes?
Fact-checking is more widespread than it’s ever been. And in particular, I’ve sensed a lot more ad hoc fact-checking inside of straight news reports. That’s another sign of fact-checking’s increasing legitimacy. But it also comes with risks. It’s inevitable that when journalists start fact-checking claims in passing, they’re going to slip up sometimes, and they’re going to provoke more hostile reactions from readers.
A great example of that was in the 2012 race when Candy Crowley was moderating a debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney and did that on the spot fact check of Romney. People objected — I think reasonably — that Romney’s bigger point was lost, and also that she hadn’t done that for claims that President Obama had made that also could have been challenged.
So there’s a risk that goes along with that sort of ad hoc fact-checking, but at the same time it can be really valuable. You want to try to debunk these claims as they are being made.
In general debates over whether or not fact-checking is legitimate seem to be settled. Given all of the things that Donald Trump, for instance, has been saying, it’s hard for any journalist to argue that reporters should just relay claims without adjudicating them. On the one hand you could say that Trump is a sign of how ineffective fact-checking is — it certainly hasn’t stopped him. But he’s also really sort of put the nail in the coffin of any lingering doubts about fact-checking as legitimate journalism.
Matt Lauer is getting criticized for not fact-checking Trump in the "Commander-In-Chief Forum" he hosted last night. Does that criticism indicate that people expect this kind of ad hoc fact-checking now and there's a new risk to journalists who don't do it?
Absolutely. I think the reaction from other journalists in particular is a sign of how expectations are changing in the field. Asking sharp follow-up questions in a non-confrontational way isn’t easy, but when a claim has been repeatedly debunked, like Trump’s point about being against the Iraq war from the beginning, the interviewer has to be ready. Hopefully this is a skill networks will begin to put a bigger premium on, for debates and events like this but also for standard programming like the Sunday shows.
There has been a debate about where fact-checking belongs, and specifically if it belongs on the opinion page. You point out that there is something strange in asking whether journalism that’s meant to examine facts belongs on a page that is labeled as opinion.
I think it made no sense to people who don’t have backgrounds in journalism. But if you do have a background in journalism then that sort of makes sense. It’s actually a misnomer to call the opinion page the opinion page. Really it’s the argument page. People are laying out fact-based arguments. We often confuse that sense of opinion with opinion as taste — where there’s no objective way to say which flavor of ice cream is better, but that’s not true of the kinds of points being made on the opinion page. They do involve facts — facts arrayed into arguments — and those arguments require interpretation. But any important or interesting factual question usually requires interpretation.
PolitiFact founder Bill Adair once called fact checking "reported conclusion journalism" and that’s a really good description. It captures why it’s uncomfortable. Reporters are always told not to reach conclusions in their reporting. It was never quite clear to me what that means, but that’s something you hear in newsrooms and journalism schools — don’t draw conclusions. And one thing fact-checking does that’s different from traditional reporting is that it does draw conclusions, it very clearly draws conclusions, but it reports its way to those conclusions.
Does fact-checking matter? You say that fact-checkers try to avoid this question, but still have to answer it all the time? What’s your answer — does it?
I think that fact-checking absolutely matters.
There are criticisms you sometimes hear of fact checking. There’s a lot of research that shows that it doesn’t persuade readers — at least not as much as we would hope, that it doesn’t always dissuade politicians from repeating false claims, although sometimes it does. All of those critiques are critiques we can make about journalism in general.
One of the first things that a journalist accepts, especially if covering politics, is that the effort to inform the public is a worthwhile endeavor even if you know that a particular story will only have a limited audience, or might not have any immediate impact on the world.
That’s a challenge that journalism has always wrestled with. It’s one that fact checking shares.