Keeping them honest

As election season rhetoric heats up, so does the demand for aggressive examination of candidates’ claims.

This is not new. The “fact-checking” movement, shorthand for news organizations’ rebuttal of factual claims, has been building for years. Now, though, as Republicans grapple in earnest with nominee selection and President Obama rolls out his first campaign ads, the fact-check war is entering a new phase.

At The New York Times, coverage of campaign debates typically includes a main article and a sidebar labeled “Fact Check” in which candidates’ claims are vetted. Last week, to Mitt Romney’s claim that the president does not have a jobs plan, The Times countered: “This is incorrect.” To Ron Paul’s statement about troop deployment costs, The Times hedged: “not as black and white as Mr. Paul made it sound.”

The Times’s fact-check function is low-key compared with some others. The work is done by regular staff members who have other duties. The “Fact Check” feature does not have its own branded spot on NYTimes.com. Beyond “Fact Check,” the paper reviews political advertising and undertakes deeper investigations of candidates’ claims as part of its broader campaign coverage.

PolitiFact, in contrast, is a dedicated unit of fact-checkers employed by The Tampa Bay Times. In operation since 2007, PolitiFact explores claims and publishes results alongside its trademarked “Truth-O-Meter,” a graphic that rates claims from true to false to “Pants on Fire,” in the case of a real whopper.

The Washington Post has “The Fact Checker,” also with a dedicated staff and rating mechanism, in this case a scheme involving “Pinocchios”: one Pinocchio for “selective telling of the truth” up to four Pinocchios for raving prevarications, with the occasional Geppetto checkmark when someone has actually told the truth (it happens).

Journalists have always seen it as a duty to check claims, but the form has evolved. The current movement has its roots in the late 1980s, a response to aggressive advertising like the Willie Horton ads aimed at Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee in 1988, according to Bill Adair, editor of PolitiFact.

He traces the most recent approach, involving dedicated fact-checking units, to 2003, when FactCheck.org was created by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

The progression, he and others say, stems from a dynamic that is changing the news business. When there were fewer media outlets, Mr. Adair said, journalists acted as gatekeepers to filter some false claims.

“If the media heard a cockamamie story, it wouldn’t pass it along without evidence,” he said. “Now those stories can get passed along in so many ways — whether it is cable, talk radio, chain e-mails. There are a million different sources. There is no filter. It is important now that we fact-check because people are getting their information from so many sources and they wonder whether it is true.”

Newspaper journalism’s traditional way of dealing with spurious claims, meanwhile, isn’t satisfying readers. Often derided as the “he said, she said” approach, this method entails finding and quoting someone to counter a claim, thereby offering a form of balance but no resolution. This sufficed in the past, for many at least, but now many readers are asking for more aggressive rebuttals.

I heard this loud and clear last week when I asked readers on my blog whether they wanted more fact-checking in straight news articles and they said, resoundingly, yes.

James Fallows, author of “Breaking the News” and a national correspondent for The Atlantic, told me it is incumbent on reporters to correct falsehood, not just balance it. “If the reporter doesn’t do that, he or she implicitly becomes part of a disinformation system that treats all statements as equally plausible claims and gives the reader no help in sorting them out.”

The case for day-to-day fact-checking is compelling, but I would raise serious cautions.

First, are you rebutting a fact that is quantifiable and knowable, or are you rebutting an opinion? Political rhetoric is replete with buzzwords and labels, many of them stretched to reflect the speaker’s opinion. A lot of this isn’t worth rebutting.

Can you fact-check without displaying bias? Some argue that fact-checking operations fail this test. Writing in The Weekly Standard, Mark Hemingway cited a University of Minnesota study that found PolitiFact had assigned “substantially harsher grades” to Republicans than Democrats between January 2010 and January 2011.

Fact-checking organizations, he told me, “are doing opinion journalism, but they are doing it under the guise of pseudo-scientific objectivity.”

(Mr. Adair responded: “We don’t keep score by party because we want our selection to be based on what’s timely and relevant to our readers — not on false balance that tries to make sure each side gets an equal number of Pants on Fire ratings.”)

Another caution: Don’t you risk making errors when you fact-check on short deadlines? Rem Rieder, editor and senior vice president of American Journalism Review, told me: “You can’t do it all the time right out of the box. If you are in Iowa covering a speech and you are filing for the Web in 10 minutes, you are not going to have the time or the resources a serious charge will require.”

Mr. Rieder, though, believes The Times should come back as quickly as possible to rebut false claims that were in a news article, and make sure that rebuttals stay in coverage going forward.

I join others who worry that The Times needs to be very careful with this. Jill Abramson, the executive editor, said that if fact-checking were made a “reflexive element of too many news stories, our readers would find The Times was being tendentious.” Readers, she added, could come to see The Times “as a combatant, not as an arbiter of what the facts were.”

Ubiquitous argument in straight news articles is not the way to go. Checking facts in politics — and in other subjects — takes time, resources and great care. Editors and reporters need to identify priorities and exercise judgment: they cannot do everything.

For these reasons, I think The Times should broaden the “Fact Check” sidebars to include issues that arise outside of the debate forum. Regular installments of fact-checking journalism, identified as such, would strengthen the paper’s approach. Links from fact-check items back to the original articles online would help readers connect the dots.

I favor rebutting assertions in some routine news articles. But The Times needs to be disciplined about it. The paper’s straight news function remains its most valuable asset, which would be undermined if argument replaced fact-gathering.

This column was originally published in The New York Times on January 22, 2012.

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