Members of Congress cited national media fact-checks 80 times in floor speeches and debates from 2013 to 2014 — and Republicans referred to fact-checkers more than twice as often as Democrats, according to a new study by the American Press Institute.
The study — conducted over several months by Mark Stencel, former NPR managing editor for digital and a former Congressional Quarterly managing editor — found only three of the politicians’ 80 statements quarreled with the fact-checkers’ findings.
But the Congressional Record only tells part of the story. Stencel’s report, based on a review of responses to selected fact-checking reports and more than a dozen conversations with people in politics and journalism, found that U.S. politicians have responded to the increase in fact-checking with a number of tactics: Using the findings as ammunition; and distorting, ignoring or challenging the fact checks.
“Media fact-checking has become a fact of life for political professionals, especially at the national level and in places where local news organizations have dedicated reporters to verifying statements by elected officials, candidates and their supporters,” Stencel said.
His study is part of a series commissioned through API’s Fact-Checking Project, an initiative to increase and improve fact-checking journalism through research and training. The program is funded by the Democracy Fund, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Rita Allen Foundation.
“If it didn’t happen on TV, it didn’t happen”
The number of fact-check stories in the U.S. news media increased by more than 300 percent from 2008 to 2012, according to an American Press Institute report released in March. In response, politicians’ most common tactic, Stencel found, is to anticipate the fact checks while crafting their messages. At times, candidates, officeholders and their advisers have modified and even dropped lines of attacks that journalists have found unfair or untruthful.
They also use fact checks as ammunition for their attacks.
“If you get a good ruling, you can swing it like a cudgel at your opponent through the entire campaign,” one state party official told Stencel. “And there’s little if any defense.”
But at other times, politicians said they ignore fact checks.
“If it didn’t happen on TV and it didn’t happen on TV a few nights in a row, it didn’t happen,” Republican pollster Neil Newhouse told Stencel. Examples include some of President Obama’s claims, made during the 2012 presidential election, about Mitt Romney’s role at Bain Capital; and Romney’s own claims about Obama’s supposed international “apology tour.”
And some candidates have created campaign ads that distort fact-check findings. In an ad during the 2014 U.S. Senate campaign in Kentucky, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes highlighted a number of fact checks related to her opponent, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. The words “FALSE,” “MISLEADING,” “A WHOPPER,” and more appeared on-screen in all caps. But several of those fact checks cited by Grimes found at least as much fault with her own statements as with McConnell’s — sometimes more.
Overall, politicians respond to or prepare for fact-checking in six major ways:
- Preparing and pre-empting. Framing public statements in advance to avoid being “PolitiFacted,” as Republicans Jeb Bush and Rick Perry put it in the early days of the 2016 presidential campaign.
- Validating. Citing fact checks by news organizations to validate their arguments.
- Weaponizing. Using fact checks to undermine opponents’ credibility, mischaracterize fact-checkers’ reporting or present the journalists’ conclusions in ways that are inaccurate or misleading.
- Standing their ground. Ignoring fact checks that contradict core strategic messages. As one political ad-maker confided, “we’re not going to let fact-checkers write our ads anymore.”
- Going nuclear. Taking on the fact-checkers directly. This kind of “shoot the messenger” strategy is rare, but it can be effective -— at least with base supporters.
- Going silent: Using “the silent treatment” with journalists. But that can come at a political price, Stencel notes.
Policing the politicians
Stencel suggests that to uphold their mission in the face of political pressure, fact-checkers police politicians’ references to their fact checks, and use lists of the worst distortions to help readers understand what misstatements matter most.
He also says that fact-checkers need to experiment with different storytelling forms and formats. Examples of such innovations include annotated videos from the Washington Post Fact Checker, the Texas Tribune and NPR. Fact-checking organizations may want to explore ways of bringing readers into the fact-finding process.
“On balance, fact-checkers tend to be good about correcting their mistakes and updating findings — a necessary and minimum investment in credibility given their mission,” Stencel said.
“But some could do more to elevate and explain those corrections and updates on their sites, especially for those in their audience who already read, saw or heard earlier versions of the stories.”
Stencel also recommends that media fact-checkers take into account how voters absorb media fact-checking and why they sometimes reject it. The API’s Fact-Checking Project has published several valuable findings in this arena, finding that corrective information can be remarkably successful at eliminating false beliefs; and that Republicans don’t view fact-checking journalism as favorably as Democrats do, especially among people with high levels of political knowledge.
Today’s report can be read here:
“Fact Check This”: How U.S. Politics Adapts to Media Scrutiny
Mark Stencel also has written an essay about his research for Politico Magazine.
For questions about the American Press Institute’s Fact-Checking Project or for more information about the research reports, contact Jane Elizabeth, API senior research manager, email@example.com.