The fact checker – quantifying truth in the US media

Who is bending the truth - the most?

Who is bending the truth – the most?

Sitting in on the daily editorial meetings at the Washington D.C. based Center for Public Integrity has given me a fascinating insight into how long-running investigative journalism projects are developed, the importance of data journalism, and the attention paid to getting the facts right.

Each story produced by a reporter here is worked on by an editor, then a fact checker, who will check every fact in the story, tracing it back to the source for verification. Sitting in an editorial meeting yesterday the fact checker, on being asked the status of a story, said she had eight facts still to verify.

I found this remarkable – it’s a safety net that doesn’t exist in a methodical way in New Zealand newsrooms, many of which rely on outsourced subeditors to pick up mistakes missed by busy chief reporters, news editors and, if they still exist, copy editors. It pays dividends for the Center, which has faced three major lawsuits and won all three of them.

Investing in a fact checker is seen as a sign of a quality publication. The New Yorker is famous for the rigour with which its fact checkers go about their work. According to Poynter, this is what it requires of writers when they submit their story:

The home and office numbers for every source you interview.

The bibliographic information (author, title, date, link, publisher) for every document you use, including books and articles. For printed work, if you don’t have the originals, then make copies.

Legal protection

It turns out there’s a good reason to employ fact checkers in the US – other than preserving the integrity of the story and the news outlet. It also gives you legal protection – even if you get the story wrong.

In libel cases, if you can prove that you employed robust fact checking of a story, but nevertheless let an error slip through, it could mitigate the outcome of a legal case against you and your publication. In other words, if the defendants can show no malice was intended in the publication of incorrect facts, the outcome is seen as an error of process.

Fact checkers exist in the newsrooms of large newspapers, through to TV current affairs shows, through to specialist magazines. It is often seen as an entry-level job for an intern, but one that has a certain amount of prestige attached to it – most fact checkers are a mine of knowledge, like a seasoned sub editor should be.

Fact checking gets political

Fact check: Politifact's Obameter

Fact check: Politifact’s Obameter

While fact checking still happens behind the scenes, part of the sausage-making process of putting the news together, fact checking has entered a new realm as it has become an editorial feature in its own right. This is particularly obvious in the political sphere, where numerous news outlets will run the ruler over the truth of claims made by politicians.

This has given rise to the likes of Factcheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, and Politifact, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its fact checking of claims made in the 2008 presidential election. They systematically go through the statements of politicians to confirm the veracity of their claims. They use computer-assisted reporting and data visualisation to aid them in doing so.

Opensecrets, backed by a series of philanthropic foundations and where at least two Center for Public Integrity reporters have worked at in the past, claims to be:

“the most comprehensive resource for federal campaign contributions, lobbying data and analysis available anywhere”.

Politifact even tracks claims made by the President to gauge, as scientifically as possible, whether he has kept his promises:

“To create our lists of promises, our staffers pored through speech transcripts, TV appearances, position papers and campaign Web sites. To make sure we selected promises that could be measured, we set some definitions. We said a promise ‘is not a position statement. It is a prospective statement of an action or outcome that is verifiable.’”

Factcheck and Politifact have pretty much cornered the market on non-partisan, political fact-checking. But the mainstream media has its own fact checking features. The Washington Post‘s political reporter Glenn Kessler, for instance, will fact check claims made by politicians in his blog The Fact Checker.

Crunching facts rates well

Much of the interest in media outlets running fact checking blogs and columns stems from the fact that the public seems to like politicians and others being called out on inaccurate statements they’ve made. This stuff rates well. According to the Associated Press:

“…generally, our fact check pieces are among the stories that most frequently make online popularity lists, like the one Yahoo keeps. On those lists, they often outperform and outlast the mainbar stories to which they are sidebars.”

If media fact checking is a growth industry, it hasn’t appeared to temper politicians’ enthusiasm for manipulating the truth. but then, as Center for public Integrity founder Chuck Lewis told me, despite all the increased scrutiny of money and politics, record amounts are being spent on the quest to buy influence in the White House. But the fight has to continue.

The likes of Politifact and Opensecrets undeniably serve an important public service, but some have questioned the fundamental use of fact checking services and their “disinterested analysis”:

All that precise assignment of Pinocchios, those dials that indicate precisely what article of clothing is combusting? Those are just for show, to give a scientific-looking veneer to what is really just some guy rattling on based on his political prejudices. Which is often what I think when I read corporate media factchecks, but I didn’t expect that the factcheckers saw it that way.

The New York Times’ Arthur Brisbane cut to the heart of the matter (and caused a mini media scandal), when he penned a blog post asking readers whether the Times should even bother fact checking newsmakers’ claims. He wrote that readers look to the Times to “set the record straight”:

They worry less about reporters imposing their judgment on what is false and what is true.Is that the prevailing view…Is it possible to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another?

The uproar in response to his blog post suggests the public and the journalistic community thinks fact checking is a core service of journalism and while subject to potential bias in itself, leaves the public much better informed than if unverified claims were widely aired unchallenged by the journalistic establishment itself. In other words, there’s an obligation on the media’s part to fact check the claims it is amplifying.

The situation here

New Zealand is crying out for a Politifact/Opensecrets type of organisation.Fact checking is mainly carried out on an ad hoc basis. Particularly in online news, claims culled from press releases make it into breaking news stories with little checking all the time.

But I don’t see dedicated fact checking services taking off in the mainstream media – the type of resource required to undertake thorough, data-intensive fact checking is beyond the resourcing of New Zealand news rooms.

However, an independent group working with the mainstream media to provide analysis and help with infographics, truth-o-meters and fact check sidebars, I think, would go down a treat with the public, the media outlets – and perform a valuable public service.

Every day New Zealand politicians, government departments, councils, NGOs and advocacy groups make claims backed up with cherry-picked data. Too often, these claims are published unchallenged or with little in the way of rigorous independent analysis. Such a service, surely, is as important (or more so?) as reportage of what is happening day to day in the world of politics.

So, how and when do we roll out the Key-o-meter?

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