Why reporters don’t fact-check assertions and how the Web could change that

The Atlantic | Nieman Journalism Lab | Reuters

A week after the Internet turned on New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane for asking whether reporters should fact-check assertions, a few people explore why journalists, frankly, don't check out everything they publish in news stories.

Conor Friedersdorf writes that newspapers are set up to provide two things independently: nonjudgmental and inconclusive news reporting, and opinion writing that helps people sort out truth from fiction. The problem with that model:

Almost no one gets their information in a bundle from a single news outlet. The editors of The New York Times and The Washington Post still create "an album" of important information every day. But fewer and fewer people consume it that way. ...

Most folks who read a news story wherein a crucial matter is contested are never going to read complementary commentary about that same subject to figure out what's actually happening.

Unless that content is included, or at least linked, it's effectively useless to the vast majority of people who come across it. In this environment, newsmakers have an incentive to lie. Orders of magnitude more people will see a false assertion that is printed, unchallenged, in the New York Times than will read why it is misleading or false, whether the take-down happens on the Op-Ed page or on the Caucus.

Lucas Graves asks whether there's a good reason to keep fact-checking separate from straight reporting. One reason: Judging by the level and intensity of attacks on fact-checkers, "it has to be acknowledged that this is a deeply polarizing activity":

The hope for building fact-checks into everyday news reports is that it would push political reporters to be more thoughtful and reflexive about their own work — to leave out quotable-but-dubious claims, to resist political conflict as the default frame, and in general to avoid the pat formulations that are so ably managed by political actors. But inevitably, all of us will be disappointed, even pissed off, by some of these routine fact-checks — and perhaps all the more so when they’re woven into the story itself.

Felix Salmon sees a corollary to blogging in this debate. Blogging, he writes, isn't as vibrant as it once was:

But this is in some ways a good thing, since it’s a symptom of bloggish sensibilities making their way into the main news report. As we find more voice and attitude and context and external linking in news stories, the need for blogs decreases. ... With any luck, what’s happening to blogs will also happen to fact-checking.

As fact-check columns proliferate and become impossible to ignore, reporters will start incorporating their conclusions in their reporting, and will eventually reach the (shocking!) point at which they habitually start comparing what politicians say with what the truth of the matter actually is. In other words, the greatest triumph of the fact-checking movement will come when it puts itself out of work, because journalists are doing its job for it as a matter of course.

Related: Keller: ‘I wonder if Art hasn’t confused matters a bit’ (Poynter) | The 5 most interesting new responses to Brisbane’s ‘Truth Vigilante’ post (Poynter) | Krugman, liberals argue PolitiFact’s Lie of the Year is not a lie (Poynter) | PolitiFact defends its Lie of the Year (PolitiFact)

  • Steve Myers

    Steve Myers was the managing editor of Poynter.org until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens, a nonprofit investigative news site in New Orleans.


Related News

Email IconGroup 3Facebook IconLinkedIn IconsearchGroupTwitter IconGroup 2YouTube Icon