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University of Wisconsin–Madison
School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Fact-checking a necessary supplement to modern political reporting, panelists say

photo of fact-checking panel

photo by Brett Blaske

Fact-checking has emerged in the past decade as a new media phenomenon with roots in traditional journalism. In the “old days,” said Bill Adair of politifact.org, news outlets and reporters acted as  filters for, political statements, weeding out false messages before presenting information to the public. Today, with a virtually endless supply of news sources across television, Internet and print media that report political messages by the minute, the filter is broken.

Adair made this point as part of a panel at this year’s Annual Conference of the Center for Journalism Ethics, held this past Friday at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. The panel discussed the emergence of independent fact checkers as  necessary components to fight misinformation.

“In the old days you would still get wacky ideas like the president was born in Kenya or is a Muslim,” Adair said, “but the reporters would stop it there and not repeat it.”

In the current media landscape, such messages do get out and gain more attention, at times, than factual political claims.

In addition to Adair, other panelists included Lisa Graves, the Executive Director at the Center for Media and Democracy, and Lucas Graves (no relation), a Ph.D. candidate in Communications at Columbia University whose dissertation has followed the fact-checking movement in American journalism. Christopher Wells,  assistant professor at the UW-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication, moderated the panel.

This broken filter has created what Lucas Graves called a “symbiotic relationship” between journalists and fact-checkers, two separate groups that were once a single entity. The panelists agreed that fact checking takes considerable time, time that is not available to reporters in a 24-hour news cycle. Adair said Politifact’s process can take an entire day or more to check a single fact effectively.

Lisa Graves noted that fact checking has recently emerged from an older journalism based on skeptical truth-seeking and genuine curiosity.

“A lot of our work is in the finest traditions of old school journalism,” Ms. Graves said, “which is deep skepticism of what people say versus the reporting you see…in television and newspapers, which is quote versus quote.”

Quoting a politician is an easy way to report what is happening, but the facts quoted may not always be accurate. Fact checkers exist to investigate the truth behind claims when reporters can’t or won’t. The process isn’t easy, nor is it favorable to maintaining a reporter’s interview sources, the panel said. Refuting a claim can be a bridge-burning affair that lessens a particular source’s willingness to speak with the reporter that has corrected him or her in the past.

If the inherent criticism fact checkers aim at political candidates were leveled by reporters, saying “no, you’re wrong, and I can prove it,” candidates might simply stop speaking to those reporters and offer access to other news outlets willing to quote whatever they say. In the current media landscape with a “broken filter,” someone else will always listen.

“This is journalism that you have to have guts to do,” Adair said about fact-checking. “And you have to be willing to make people mad.”

Independent fact-checking sources like Adair’s Politifact are willing to take the heat and provide raw, documented evidence to back up their claims. This is a function journalists used to perform, and one they have recently been improving, according to Mr. Graves.

But the panelists were asked, is this symbiotic or mutually dependent relationship merely a crutch for journalists afraid to burn bridges with sources? Shouldn’t journalists already be checking the validity of statements they publish? The answer is complicated in today’s media sphere, in which campaign-trail articles cover what was said at a debate, while “sidebar” fact-checking pieces cover whether the claims were true.

“On the one hand, that gets more fact-checking journalism … out there in front of the reader. And arguably, it begins to acclimate that news org to this kind of journalism,” Mr. Graves said. “In many news outlets, we’ve seen a parallel increase both in their citations of fact checkers and in their in-house fact checking.”

Mr. Graves acknowledged that while every fact-checking piece is in some sense a “critique of a traditional report that failed to check the claim,” the separate critiques of fact checkers allow traditional journalists to continue producing competitive, timely reporting. In the current media landscape, effective fact-checking is nearly impossible for traditional news sources, so fact-checkers have become necessary whistle blowers to determine just how much truth rests in any given statement. Sometimes, a claim isn’t a cut-and-dried true or false, and sites like politifact.org address this with a “truth spectrum.”

Politifact uses a trademarked “Truth-O-Meter” to provide a quick, easily understandable truth rating of candidates’ claims. Its six-level scale ranges from “Pants on fire!” – very false – to half true, and completely true. Each rating passes through three editors before publication.

Politifact’s data relies on original documented sources and leaves the analysis to reporters and other sources. Adair likened fact-checkers to a baseball umpire, a whistle-blower who examines each call individually without making analyses about the game.

“If you ask an umpire who’s out at home more often … the umpire is going to say, ‘well, I look at every call separately, I don’t know.’” Adair said. “You don’t go to the umpire for analysis of the game.”

The job of analysis is left to citizens and, increasingly, traditional news outlets, which frequently quote independent fact checkers. This novel relationship between the media, candidates, fact-checkers and ultimately voters, will be more important than ever in the upcoming election.

Professor Stephen Ward, Director of the Center for Journalism Ethics, noted the New York Times’ suggestion that the 2012 election will be not only the most expensive in history, but also the most fact-checked. Adair agreed, saying “I think this indeed will be the most fact checked election [in history], and I think that is a very good thing.”

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