Opinion

Felix Salmon

Will fact-checking go the way of blogs?

By Felix Salmon
January 18, 2012

Lucas Graves has by far the best and most sophisticated response to NYT ombudsman Arthur Brisbane’s silly question about “truth vigilantes”.

Graves makes the important point that Brisbane’s “objective and fair” formulation is itself problematic: as one of Brisbane’s commenters wrote, if a certain politician is objectively less truthful, less forthcoming, and less believable than others, then objectivity demands that reporting on what that politician’s saying be truthful — even if that comes across as unfair.

And this just about sums up the entire debate:

Pointing to a column in which Paul Krugman debunked Mitt Romney’s claim that the President travels the globe “apologizing for America,” Brisbane explains that,

As an Op-Ed columnist, Mr Krugman clearly has the freedom to call out what he thinks is a lie. My question for readers is: should news reporters do the same?

To anyone not steeped in the codes and practices of professional journalism, this sounds pretty odd: Testing facts is the province of opinion writers? What happens in the rest of the paper?

Graves’s main insight here, however, is to frame this debate in the context of what AJR has called the “fact-checking explosion” in American journalism — a movement which is roughly as old as the blogosphere, interestingly enough.

And like the blogosphere, the rise of fact-checking raises the obvious question:

It’s easy to declare, as Brook Gladstone did in a 2008 interview with Bill Moyers, that reporters should “Fact check incessantly. Whenever a false assertion is asserted, it has to be corrected in the same paragraph, not in a box of analysis on the side.” (I agree.) But why, exactly, don’t they do that today? Why has fact-checking evolved into a specialized form of journalism relegated to a sidebar or a separate site? Are there any good reasons for it to stay that way?

As I look around the blogosphere today, I see something which is clearly dying — it’s not as healthy or as vibrant as it used to be. 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. (One reason why the blogosphere never took off in the UK to the same degree that it did in the US is that the UK press was always much bloggier, in this sense, than the US press was.)

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.

That’s not going to happen any time soon, for reasons of what Graves calls “political risk aversion”. Fact-checking, says Graves, “is a deeply polarizing activity”, and mainstream media organizations have a reflective aversion to being polarizing. It’s certainly very difficult to be polarizing and fair at the same time. But a more honest and more polarizing press would be an improvement on what we’ve got now. And just as external links are slowly making their way out of the blog ghetto and into many news reports, let’s hope that facts make their way out of the fact-check ghetto too. It would certainly make a lot of political journalism much more interesting to read.

Comments
11 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

It is of course possible for Fact Checking Websites to give completely the wrong impression because they can only check what was publicly said; they can’t account for private conversations people have with senior officials in other countries.

Knowing how much the reputation of the US suffered in the rest of the World under the last Republican Administration, I would not at all be surprised to learn that no matter what was said in public, behind the scenes at dinners and coffee meetings Romney did indeed travel the globe “apologizing for America”. The only bit that can realistically be checked is whether or not he travelled much, not what he said.

Posted by FifthDecade | Report as abusive
 

How did being described as “polarizing” become too high a price to pay for telling the truth? Journalists and the media today have convinced themselves that telling the truth is not “fair” to someone. Or at least that’s the spin they put on whenever they refuse to fact-check. Isn’t this the opposite of what “fair” is? When it comes to fact-checking, there aren’t two sides of the story (unless you are insane). Isn’t it the job of journalism and the media to accurately describe the situation? If the two sides in a story ARE polar opposites, then the media can’t be described as being “polarizing” to accurately describe both sides, can they? They can just tell the truth and let the reader decide. It is as though, and we know this is true, the media has determined that it’s in their interest to NOT tell the truth or fact check, just so that…….what? So that what? So that the owners of the news outlets can do what they are there to do, which is make money by never cutting off any source of revenue from any advertiser. Truth is unimportant. The money train is all that matters. This is called fascism.

Posted by realistIL | Report as abusive
 

If you lie, you don’t deserve to be treated fairly. When did it become ok to ignore this staple value of civilization? Oh yeah, I know, when corporations gained the same status as people, and when money became concentrated in the hands of psychopaths who have purchased the media for the purpose of making money and not reporting facts.

Posted by realistIL | Report as abusive
 

Wait, “bloggier”=more factual? UK reporting in general is more factual?

Posted by Eericsonjr | Report as abusive
 

Well, I for one, am tired of the media acting as an echo chamber for lies. Politicians, lawyers and issue-advocates of all stripes know this weakness of the 24/7 news, and use it to their advantage.

Posted by GRRR | Report as abusive
 

This idea is nice in theory, but PolitiFact’s track record suggests that this won’t be done well if it does happen. As evidence, I note its choice for 2011 “Lie of the Year” – that the Paul Ryan Medicare plan would “end Medicare” – as well as the 2010 “Lie of the Year” being the claim that the healthcare law is a “government takeover of healthcare”. Both claims are political exaggerations – more accurate statements would be that the Ryan plan “fundamentally changes Medicare (from a fee for service system to a voucher based system)” or that the healthcare act “dramatically expands federal government involvement in the healthcare system, particularly with respect to health insurance.” It is arguable that either “Lie of the Year” is a true statement, however.

I particularly worry if political reporters start trying to parse and correct economic statements, since it rarely appears that political reporters understand much economics.

Posted by realist50 | Report as abusive
 

The problem with giving a journal a fact-checking role is that such a role is likely to have a clear bias to the right or left. I am more likely to catch inaccuracies on the right than on the left. On the other hand, the NYT has a tendency to regurgitate statements of established groups–for example the various blatant lies issued by the Mubarak regime during the Tahrir square events. Even if the NYT doesn’t want to check every fact, it could provide an indication of which of its sources is on firmer factual ground than others.

Posted by MKCurious | Report as abusive
 

Regarding the difference between the UK and US media, in the US the media is all privately owned, for profit and so the advertiser rules; in the UK, although there is a large privately owned print media, the BBC is the main conduit for news dissemination encompassing Radio, TV and the internet (www.bbc.co.uk/news) – and is paid for by public subscription. It is independent of both government influence and commercial control and doesn’t care much who it irritates. Although it has moved in recent years to a more sensationalist way of reporting stories, I’d always prefer the output of the Beeb than of one of the main TV channels.

One example: American TV Network News shows a clip of a news conference but tells you what the person said; the BBC shows the same clip and let’s you hear what the person said. It is astonishing how often the version given by the US anchor is rather different to what the person actually said, and is coloured by the personal and editorial angle that Network and anchor seek to convey.

In short, I do think the UK is more factual, and more than that, its facts are more reliable too.

Posted by FifthDecade | Report as abusive
 

I thought there was something even more interesting in Brisbane’s silly question : his very example of what “truth vigilantism” would be.

“The president has never used the word ‘apologize’ in a speech about U.S. policy or history. Any assertion that he has apologized for U.S. actions rests on a misleading interpretation of the president’s words.”

Whether Obama used the precise word ‘apologize’ is irrelevant and trivial. What matters is the substance, addressed in the second sentence but only with the very weak “misleading”.

Krugman got it right and wrote what any decent journalist should report (and be ready to defend in a further article if called on it):

” Mr. Romney’s frequent suggestion that the president has gone around the world “apologizing for America.” (This) is a popular theme on the right — but the so-called Obama apology tour is a complete fabrication, assembled by taking quotes out of context. ”

Now, the Romney campaign would pay attention (and I would start to pay attention the NY Times’ reporting).

But back to Brisbane, it looks like his very notion of “truth” and “objectivity” is itself trivial, formalistic.

And indeed, it seems to me that fact-checking often devolved into this kind of triviality, whether he or she used that precise word or got the date and place for such and such event exactly right, etc. That the kind of fact-checking we can do without.

The real question is whether or not journalists must exercise factually well-informed judgement and publish it. And the answer is “Hell yes !!!” but it’s expansive, painstaking, occasionally risky and, specifically in the frenetic real time of politics, certainly very arduous.

Posted by Frwip | Report as abusive
 

FifthDecade, the BBC regularly and consistently gets basic facts wrong. There is not even the pretence of being accurate. Neither does the Guardian. I remember you quoted them when they claimed the New of the World had deleted voicemails to try and get more scoops and thus caused the parents to believe she was alive. We now know for a fact the entire story was a complete fabrication.

Despite your clear disdain for them, facts do exist and do matter and the media in both the US and UK are simply appalling in the way they deal with them, with the NYT being one of the worst offenders.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive
 

Also care to back up this claim?

“the reputation of the US suffered in the rest of the World under the last Republican Administration” – except amongst the left in Europe and mass-murderers in the Middle East?

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive
 

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
  •