When the American Press Institute launched its fact-checking project in early 2014, we quickly began to understand that some people didn’t understand. The meaning of fact-checking, that is.
“When did fact-checking and journalism separate?” Jon Stewart pondered on The Daily Show. Even some journalists didn’t quite get it.
But as 2015 comes to a close, we see an unprecedented awareness of fact-checking. An understanding that it’s not about copy-editing or “gotcha” journalism. An appreciation for accountability journalism that not only adjudicates a statement — for instance, about “a flood of refugees” — but also illuminates how damaging and even dangerous a widespread untruth might be.
Below, we’ve gathered some insights we’ve learned about fact-checking through the scholarly research we sponsored, the gatherings of fact-checkers we’ve assembled, the workshops we’ve conducted — the good, the challenges, and what more can be done throughout the 2016 elections and beyond.
1. Citizens learn from fact-checking.
Let’s start with something that might seem counterintuitive at the moment: When presented with facts, people who have incorrect and even rather strange ideas about government and public policy can absorb the correct information. And they retain it, even months later.
That was outcome of a study conducted for API by researcher Emily Thorson, formerly of George Washington University and now at Boston College. A separate API-sponsored study showed that reading fact-checking articles increased knowledge on a subject by 11 percentage points — and even more among people who already have a high level of political knowledge.
Thorson’s research indicates that even people who are “confidently wrong” in their beliefs can change their minds when facts are presented in straightforward ways, whether it’s Vox-like “cards stacks” or annotations or PolitiFact Sheets.
The learning potential among readers is good news for fact-checkers, who said at an API-sponsored summit this month that their goal is to enlighten readers, not win a “gotcha” game with political candidates.
“I don’t write this stuff for politicians,” the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler said in an interview. “Politicians are going to do what they’re going to do. The point of the fact-checks is to inform voters.”
2. Fact-checking is growing, and people like it.
Last year, we predicted that huge spending on campaigns would help fuel an increase in fact-checking and its popularity. Anecdotally and academically speaking, this has happened. An API-sponsored study this year showed the number of fact-check stories in the U.S. news media increased by more than 300 percent from 2008 to 2012. A Duke University study showed a 45 percent increase in active fact-checking sites around the world since 2014.
“I think facts do matter and voters are interested in fact-checking,” Eugene Kiely, director of FactCheck.org, told POLITICO this month. “I think the numbers prove that out. Compare now to 2011, the year before the 2012 election. Our numbers are through the roof.”
“It’s like a lighthouse in the blizzard,” said New York Times political editor Carolyn Ryan told the magazine. “It does seem to make a difference to readers. They really respond to it.”
FactCheck.org has partnered with CNN’s “State of the Union” to expand video fact-checks. PolitiFact announced a partnership with NBC News this month; and through a partnership with E.W. Scripps and its 33 television stations, PolitiFact has expanded into four additional states. NPR launched its fact-checking feature “Break it Down” this fall. Throughout the country, news organizations have started, re-started and expanded local fact-checking projects.
Nearly everything about fact-checking is “more” this year. More social media, more mobile-friendly, more interactive.
More fact-checking by any media organization is a good thing for all, says Aaron Sharockman, executive director of PolitiFact. “Craft breweries don’t see each other as competition,” he said. “They’re opportunities for people to fall in love with craft beer. It’s the same thing for fact-checkers right now. The more of us there are, the better off for everyone.”
And people like the craft. An API-sponsored study this year showed that eight in 10 people have a favorable view of fact-checking; and for those who are more familiar with politics and accountability reporting, the number rises to nine in 10.
3. But…there’s always a but…
Clearly, there are people who not only reject facts when presented with them, but plant their feet deeper. This was an outcome not surprising to CNN commentator and conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt, who’s interviewed many Trump supporters. “They hate, hate, hate the media. Did I mention hate?” said Hewitt, one of three journalists who questioned candidates at this month’s GOP debate in Las Vegas.
GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump makes claims fact-checkers later establish to be wrong, and the pre-election polls have suggested his supporters don’t waver. Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh said recently: “Trump gets away with his mistakes. Such is the bond of loyalty that his support base has for him… .”
Loss of trust in media is a long-simmering issue that isn’t limited to one party, but mistrust of the “liberal media” in particular is an issue that is now touching fact-checking. API-sponsored research released earlier this year showed Republicans view fact-checking significantly less favorably than Democrats do.
This presents two immediate problems for journalists fact-checking campaigns and political actors. One, how do you disentangle the message from the messenger? As political advertising professor and API researcher Michelle Amazeen notes, people generally assess a message based on whether the messenger “is one of them.”
And secondly, how can fact-checkers inform partisan voters who have already made up their minds about candidates? “People who are diehard believers hold their beliefs even more firmly when those beliefs are challenged,” Amazeen writes in the Washington Post.
These are confounding questions with no quick answers, but journalism can’t afford — in any sense of the word — to leave substantial audiences behind.
At the recent API-sponsored summit of political journalists, fact-checkers discussed using Tumblr, Reddit and promoted Facebook posts as a way to move outside their standard audiences and reach influencers from a variety of political backgrounds.
An open and fair process also could go a long way toward improving trust. Amazeen is among those who have noted that fact-checkers need to adopt a more systematic and transparent method of claim selection. The fact-checkers’ methodology; the organization’s ethics and corrections policies; and data, documents and other reporting materials all should be readily available to readers and viewers.
4. Fact-checking has an impact on political behavior.
While fact-checkers don’t necessarily set out to stop politicians from spouting untruths, studies indicate that is what’s happening. Politicians themselves have created the verb-ified term “politifacted,” referring to being fact-checked by the organization.
An API-sponsored study by former NPR managing editor Mark Stencel included this fact: Members of Congress mentioned media fact-checks and fact-checking organizations 83 time in floor speeches in 2013-14. Only three were critical of the fact-checkers’ work.
“Political professionals anticipate fact-checking,” Stencel wrote in his report. “Political teams have devoted significant time and staff to responding to this kind of reporting.”
An earlier study also showed that political candidates who were warned that fact-checkers would be investigating their claims tended to get better ratings — that is, they were more truthful on the campaign trail — than those who were not warned.
5. But (again): The powers of fact-checking can be exploited.
“If you get a good ruling [from a fact-checker], you can swing it like a cudgel at your opponent through the entire campaign,” one senior state Republican in Virginia told Stencel for the API study. “And there’s little if any defense.”
Stencel calls this “the weaponization of fact-checking,” the tendency for politicians to use media fact-checking as part of an attack on their opponents. And they don’t always do it in an honest way, sometimes misrepresenting the journalists’ conclusions — a tactic that journalists now need to monitor, Stencel advised.
Another consequence of the rise of fact-checking’s popularity: Campaigns and political supporters are mimicking media fact-checks by producing what some journalists call “faux checks.”
Political rhetoric disguised as fact-checking has come from the Carly for America campaign; the Democrats’ Correct the Record site; and Democrats in DuPage County, Ill. During debates and speeches, staffers for the opposing party routinely bombard reporters with e-mails bearing the subject line “fact-check.”
6. Fact checking isn’t just for politics.
It’s somewhat unfathomable now, but in 11 months there won’t be a national political campaign to fact-check. Journalism’s political fact-checking model, however, should not be limited to campaigns.
This year, FactCheck.org launched SciCheck to examine science-related claims. The Conversation US employs journalists and academics to fact-check topics from arts and culture to technology. Gizmodo’s “Factually” tackles viral claims of all sorts. RH Reality Check recently doubled its staff. Education Week’s fact-checking is year-round.
A number of blogs and news sites check entertainment, from Hollywood gossip to movies.
And importantly, local news organizations this year have increased their fact-checking of community issues: for example, ski lift-ticket prices; a new mayor; the impact of minimum wage hikes on restaurants.
7. People expect the media to find truth and expose lies.
Peel away the angry rhetoric about lack of trust in the “liberal media” and it’s clear what’s behind it: An expectation that a journalist’s job is to be fair, transparent, and take responsibility for unearthing facts and correcting falsehoods.
That expectation is evident in the aftermath of any massive fact-checking failure like Rolling Stone magazine’s alleged campus rape story. An election full of complex issues — and unlimited opportunities to mangle the truth — prompts media audiences to demand more fact-checking.
Readers complained to New York Times editors about weak fact-checking of a story on black pastors’ support of Donald Trump. The Washington Post’s Kessler has noted that about half of his fact-checking topics are the result of readers’ requests.
And there’s another byproduct of increased fact-checking and accountability reporting: A greater and growing pool of vetted data and statements.
“I see accurate information becoming more available and easier for voters to find,” wrote PolitiFact editor Angie Holan in the New York Times this month. “By that measure, things are pretty good.”
The Fact-Checking Project of the American Press Institute is supported by grants from the Democracy Fund, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Rita Allen Foundation. Contact us for more information; and sign up here for our weekly newsletter.