April 20, 2015

As some wring their hands about a decline in newsroom resources and quality, there’s a “huge growth” in fact checking in the coverage of politics, according to a new academic study.

Several thousand papers were delivered at the Midwest Political Science Association conference, including, “Where and Why Do Journalists Fact-Check.” The paper contends that reporters now fact-check politicians more than ever. One co-author describes it as an “explosion” that coincides with an obvious growth in the coverage of national politics.

“Every single elite organization engages in visible fact checking of politics,” Lucas Graves of the University of Wisconsin told a small audience on Thursday as he sketched the study’s preliminary findings.

“There are scores of dedicated fact-checking outlets that didn’t exist even five years ago.”

He cited the first dedicated fact-checking site as Spinsanity, launched in 2001 by one of his co-authors, Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College. Among those that have followed are Factcheck.org (2003), PolitiFact (2007) and the Washington Post’s Fact Checker (2007).

The most influential has been PolitiFact, he said, especially after it began licensing the name and methodology to various partners. It was started at the Tampa Bay Times.

There are now versions of PolitiFact in 11 states and, the authors conclude, the vast preponderance of increased political fact checking is seen in those 11 states due to the arrival of PolitFact. The study saw some increases in fact checking in the 39 other states without PolitiFact operations, albeit from often exceedingly low bases. Their methodology involved looking at the three top circulation papers in a state or a mix of top circulation papers and one that focused on covering a state capital.

Graves says that fact checking appeals to the core values, self-image and status of many journalists.

In a second related study, the authors, who include Jason Reifler of University of Exeter, assessed responses of 1,700 journalists in research funded by the American Press Institute and soon to be formally disclosed.

One group got a letter asking them to take a survey on fact checking. That letter heralded the rise of fact checking among elite media organizations.

The second group got a letter asking them to take the survey but focused on what it said was a growing consumer demand for such fact checking.

Then there was a third, so-called control group that got no letter.

In a phone conversation Sunday, Graves said there was evidence that the letters prompted more fact checking by those journalists who cover politics.

There was no seeming increase among the control group.

“At outlets where reporters got messages [letters] promoting fact checking as really important journalism, leading journalists actually did more fact checking than one who did not [get the letters].

The research was conducted prior to the 2014 mid-term elections.

On Sunday, Graves also underscored that the work by him and colleagues was focused totally on political coverage. He conceded that a perception of a decline in fact checking in many other areas of journalism was likely accurate.

Correction: Jason Reifler is from the University of Exeter, not Georgia State University. Also, the authors did find slight increases in the fact-checking done in the 39 states without PolitiFact, a previous version of this article stated that there was no increase in those states.

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New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S.…
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