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".

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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.

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