Firefighters, Fact-Checking and American Journalism

FactCheck.org

By Brooks Jackson

When I came to Annenberg and launched FactCheck.org in December 2003, I had a single research assistant and practically no competition. Now, nine years later, FactCheck.org has an excellent staff, and so many other journalists are fact-checking politicians that one media critic calls it “the ever-growing factchecking industry.”

So I think now is a good time to look back at the road we’ve traveled, and the road ahead.

Two questions arise. Are we doing any good? And where should we go from here?

My personal answers are: “Yes” — but not for reasons you might think, and “Onward” — provided fact-checkers avoid some potholes that I’ve noticed along the way.

Does Fact-Checking Matter?

Yes, we’re doing some good. That used to seem obvious to our fellow journalists, though lately some have expressed doubts.

Late in the 2004 campaign, the Washington Post ran an editorial under the headline, “Thank the Fact Checkers,” praising both us and the estimable Congressional Budget Office. “They may not have kept the political debate honest — who could? — but in very different ways each has helped make the campaign less dishonest than it might have been.”

Later, Time magazine’s website listed us as one of the “25 Sites We Can’t Live Without.” We came, alphabetically, right after Facebook and before Google. We were riding high.

But lately the mood has soured a bit.

A typical post-election piece carried the headline, “How Much Do Fact-Checkers Matter?“  The author reported finding a “broad consensus” among Romney campaign veterans, GOP operatives, Democratic strategists and Obama team members that “the analysis produced by the journalist fact-checkers didn’t matter and had no material effect on the presidential campaign.”

Maybe not — if by “campaign” you mean the candidates and their paid help. We had little effect on them, it’s true. Both the Romney and Obama campaigns were guilty of rampant and repeated dishonesty, undeterred by the “industry” of fact-checkers. For details, refer to our summary of campaign “Whoppers.”

Both sides did it without apology. President Obama himself admitted his campaign had “gone overboard” and made “mistakes,” but he offered no regrets or even disapproval. “You know, that happens in politics,” he said.

On the other side, Romney’s pollster, Neil Newhouse, challenged by reporters to defend the campaign’s “most effective” (but false) ad, said, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.”

Both campaigns were happy to quote us as an authority — when we criticized their opponent. But when we criticized their own distortions and false claims, they ignored us, or pushed back with more bogus assertions.

At times I got the impression the campaign apparatchiks viewed it as a badge of honor to be called out for exaggerated or false claims. It was as though they believed they wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t distort the opponent’s positions or blacken his personal character. Indeed, “that happens in politics.”

Blaming the Firefighter

But that doesn’t mean we are doing no good, or that we’ve failed in our mission. Complaining that fact-checkers failed to stop politicians from lying is like complaining that a firefighter failed to prevent an arsonist from starting a fire.

Furthermore, it seems to me that anyone who asks the very political operatives behind the 2012 falsehoods to rate our performance is pretty much interviewing the arsonists about the merits of the firefighters. We don’t write to impress politicians or their hirelings. We write to help the voters — and we don’t expect to get an invitation to dinners at the White House.

We can’t stop politicians from trying to bamboozle voters. But we can make voters harder to fool. I see a gratifying amount of evidence to show that we are doing that. For one thing, we get a steady stream of unsolicited testimonials from our readers. Here are just a few of those we’ve published in our weekly “Mailbag”:

FactCheck has been an invaluable tool to me this election season, and I very much wish more people would use it. I wish I’d known of your site before now.

Robert Mohr Pinellas Park, Fla.

Factual errors, misstatements, and summaries occur in every campaign, and our job as voters is to decide which ones matter to us. You’re not trying to do that for us, and I for one really appreciate it.

Susan Rati Lane (who was responding to readers who accuse us of false equivalency) Somerville, Mass.

I cannot begin to express my thanks to you and the Annenberg Foundation for your service. In these stressful political times, you guys keep me sane! Thanks again for your great work. Please don’t stop.

Scott Rucker Louisville, Ky.

To read more such testimonials, click the link below:

I want to thank everyone that helps run FactCheck.org. I’ll be honest, I haven’t cared about politics much, and a big reason for it is that it’s frustrating to deal with all the lies. … I’m ever so grateful for a website that is truly neutral. Thank you again, and I’ll be sure to pass this website on to as many people as I can.

L. Yang New York, N.Y.

[I] have been searching for something balanced and honest about the hard truths facing this nation and its economy. So, from the deepest part of my patriotic heart, THANK YOU for all that you and your organization do to present concise, digestible information for the concerned voters of this country.

Deborah Cates Davis, Calif.

Thank you so much for all your efforts to reveal the facts. In the muddled up, mixed up world of politics, it is so refreshing to know where to find the truth, not the partial truth or the sort of truth, but real nonpartisan facts.

Cindy Withrow Charleston, W.Va.

I want to thank the Factcheck.org webpage founders/administrators for giving me such a wonderful resource.

Dean Riley Chatham, Pa.

I can’t begin to tell you how much I appreciate the hard work you and your people do. Honesty is something that no longer exists in politics and I’m glad you keep it to “just the facts.”

Kathleen Norris Mishawaka, Ind.

I feel like I can come to this site and get the analysis that helps make voters like me have an informed vote that cuts through the political garbage that both sides sling. Again, thank you.

Dustin Slayer Ashland, Ky.

In addition to these testimonials, we now have some solid data as well. People who visited fact-checking websites during the 2012 campaign actually knew significantly more about the issues under discussion than those who didn’t.

The data come from a poll of 1,522 adults conducted in September by Social Science Research Solutions for our parent organization, the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center.

The results? Persons who reported that they had sought out fact-checking information on the Internet answered 55.5 percent of the “political knowledge” questions correctly, more than 10 points higher than those who didn’t visit a fact-checking site.

And this was no fluke. Even when controlling for factors such as age or education, those who visited fact-checking sites still did better, by a statistically significant margin.

So based on this, I can say with confidence that we fact-checkers are making voters harder to fool. And that was our goal all along. We can’t stop the political arsonists, but we can and do limit their damage.

Potholes to Avoid

That’s not to say fact-checkers are perfect. At FactCheck.org, we’ve made our share of factual mistakes over the years. But we correct ours as promptly and openly as we can, and don’t try to hide them. And I’ve seen the same prompt correction of (infrequent) errors from my fellow fact-checkers at other organizations.

But how often do political candidates correct their bogus claims? Hardly ever. More often, they just keep making them, even when shown to be false.

Looking ahead, I see room for improvement. Some of the habits and practices I’ve seen in the fact-checking “industry” tend to damage the credibility of all fact-checkers, and should be modified or avoided.

  • Confusing fact-checking with commentary. A true “fact check” simply assesses the factual accuracy of a specific claim, nothing more. Is it true, false or somewhere in between? Does it give a misleading impression? Fact-checkers get into trouble when they step beyond these bounds. For example, another organization was rightly and roundly criticized for bringing up Bill Clinton’s untruthful testimony about Monica Lewinsky to “fact check” a perfectly accurate attack he made at the Democratic convention about Republican deceptions.
  • Inflexible rating systems. Rating statements with devices such as “truth-o-meters” or “Pinocchios” are popular with readers, and successful attention-grabbers. But such ratings are by their nature subjective — the difference between one or two “Pinocchios” is a matter of personal judgment, and debatable. Some statements are clearly true, and some provably false, but there’s no agreed method for determining the precise degree of mendacity in any statement that falls somewhere in between. Rating systems have also led to embarrassment. A senator who said a “majority” of Americans are conservative was rated “mostly true” (and later “half true”) even though the statement was false. The story cited a poll showing only 40 percent of Americans rated themselves conservative. That’s more than said they were moderate (35 percent) or liberal (21 percent) but still far from a majority. The senator had a point, but stated it incorrectly, thereby exaggerating. A simple “truth-o-meter” had no suitable category for that. Our approach would have been to say that it was false. But we would also note that the senator would have been correct to say Americans are more likely to call themselves conservative than moderate, or liberal, when given those three choices.

Bogus Criticisms, From Right and Left

Besides these valid criticisms, we fact-checkers also have been attacked from the right and left as either politically biased, or inconsistent. I see no basis for either criticism.

One persistent critic at the conservative Weekly Standard, for example, saw “evidence of partisan bias” in a study released by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, which concluded that Politifact.com rated statements by Mitt Romney and other Republicans as false twice as often as statements by President Obama and other Democrats.

But that’s not evidence of bias, necessarily. For one thing, the CMPA said it had not attempted to assess whether Politifact.com’s ratings were correct. So the disparity could just as easily be interpreted as evidence that Romney was wrong twice as often as Obama.

Later, the CMPA found that the Washington Post’s Fact Checker column “faults the two parties about equally.” That was interpreted by the Weekly Standard‘s critic as evidence that the Post was “better” than Politifact.com, which is pretty clear evidence of the critic’s own Republican bias.

CMPA interpreted its own findings as evidence that “[f]act-checkers disagree on who lies most.” We’ve heard that echoed by political operatives, who cite it as a reason they think fact-checkers should be ignored. But I don’t agree with either interpretation.

For one thing, the CMPA study made no attempt to compare how the two fact-checkers rated specific, discreet claims. It tallied 98 ratings by Politifact and 64 by the Post, but didn’t say how many of those ratings were of identical claims. It compared a big basket with a smaller one, without any explanation of how many apples or oranges either contained.

In my experience, the various fact-checking organizations seldom disagree about the basic accuracy of any specific claim, whether it’s from a Republican or a Democrat. That’s true even though we arrive at our judgments independently. And this study offers no evidence to the contrary. (CMPA said it would also rate FactCheck.org, but so far has not contacted us or published any findings.)

From liberal critics, we often hear the accusation that fact-checkers strain to create a “false equivalency” when we find fault with their favored candidates. One pro-Obama reader even accused us of showing “fairness bias” in our coverage of a debate. That of course assumes that liberal candidates lie less often, or less egregiously, than conservatives.

In fact, what we attempt to do at FactCheck.org is to apply the same standard of accuracy to all statements — from either side — and let the chips fall where they will. We leave it to readers to judge how important or how deplorable any factually incorrect statement might seem to them.

We don’t try to keep score. The point is not to discover which side is less truthful, but to give voters reliable facts, and to counteract political misinformation. Partisan critics don’t seem to grasp that.

It is just human nature for biased observers to see bias in us when we cite facts that tend to discredit their beliefs, but that’s not evidence of bias on our part. And it’s also human nature for the politicians we criticize to strain for reasons to deflect the criticism, rather than acknowledge responsibility for their own deceptions.

My Road

Watching a website at a university think tank inspire an entire journalistic “industry” has been enjoyable and professionally fulfilling. But at age 71, I’m not keen on pulling more all-night sessions to comb through another State of the Union Address or another presidential debate. So I’ll be stepping down as director of FactCheck.org at the end of the year.

I’ll turn over the reins to my very able deputy, Eugene Kiely, and I’ll assume the honorific title of “director emeritus.” But I won’t be leaving. I’ll take a little time off. Then, starting in February, I’ll return to work as a part-time reporter and consultant.

FactCheck.org is funded for now, and superbly staffed. The work will continue. And I hope the fact-checking “industry” will grow as well, offering voters even more help to sort through the inevitable spin.

As long as there are political arsonists, we need all the firefighters we can get.

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