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The Hard Truth About Fact-Checking

My colleague Jonathan Cohn and plenty of others have done yeoman's work today in challenging PolitiFact's awarding of its "lie of the year" award to the Democrats' claim that the Paul Ryan proposal approved by House Republican would "end Medicare." There's little more to say on the substance of the matter. But the moment does present a new opportunity to ask a larger question that has been nagging at me the past year or two: why do we need fact-checkers, anyway?

Until a few months ago, I worked at a newspaper, the Washington Post, that helped pioneer the fact-checker format before it was adopted by the two outfits that dominate the enterprise today, the Tampa Bay Times' PolitiFact* and the Annenberg Public Policy Center's I can't recall exactly, but I may even have contributed to the Post's fact-checker feature back during the 2007-2008 campaign cycle, and I definitely weighed in with insta-fact-checks on the Post's website during big speeches or debates. I greatly respect the people at the Post who have taken up the task. But at the end of the day, the whole enterprise leaves me disconcerted. The truth of the matter is, fact-checkers wouldn't be needed if all of us journalists were more able, willing and empowered to do our jobs: to vet and explain political claims as they were being made. But the media lives in such abject terror of the perception of bias that it has, in a sense, decided to outsource a big part of its job: telling readers what the real deal is. This has resulted in a strange sort of division of labor, bordering on ghettoization -- all of these reporters over here will record what's being said by politicians, while this one guy, or one organization, over here with the fact-checker cap on will tell you whether it's true. It's like having a newsroom full of color commentators to describe the action but only one ref or umpire to make all the calls. The appeal is clear: it seeks to protect the reporters from charges of bias while giving the work of political judgment and analysis a scientific aura. And, let's be honest, it also makes the job easier for reporters who can't be bothered to learn enough about the facts of the matter at hand to judge the issue themselves.

But it's an unfortunate trend nonetheless. It sells short the reporters who do know the facts on the issues they cover, who would be in a position to infuse their coverage with more analysis and insight (thereby making it more vital and readable) if they were less shackled by constraints. And, as we are reminded today, it invests far too much weight and significance in a handful of arbiters who, every once in a while, will really blow a big call. I'm hardly the first to make this point. The Columbia Journalism Review addressed this in an important editorial last year:

Still, while PolitiFact and its Truth-O-Meter produce eye-catching accountability journalism, in some ways it’s also a symptom of how journalism has lost its way. The work it specializes in ought to be the task of every reporter on every beat. It shouldn’t be confined to a special team.
Too many reporters hack their way past policy debates by simply quoting political actors on each side, without making an effort to track down the facts, examine the logic, and flesh out the context. A twisted idea of fairness, combined with simple laziness, ends up obscuring issues, making them boring and complicated rather than big and vital.
A “pants on fire” rating on the Truth-O-Meter may help clean up political discourse, but such weapons are limited. One can mislead without betraying a carefully constructed set of facts. While the Truth-O-Meter’s middle regions capture some of this nuance, pushing for intellectual honesty in political debate requires verdicts and explanations that cannot always be mapped along a true/false continuum.
That calls for another kind of accountability journalism, one that tests arguments and rhetoric and simply explains things. In many cases, doing this well is no different than covering policy debates well—talking to experts, finding the numbers, laying it all out. Journalists who work like this try to make their stories comprehensive, and as comprehensible as a needle on the Truth-O-Meter. There’s an old set of tools at the ready—kitchen table reporting with ordinary people, narrative that presents policy in human terms, series that present information in digestible chunks.

One last thought on this: it's worth noting that the "lie of the year" controversy arises just as PolitiFact is expanding its operations into doing more fact-checking on local and regional campaigns and issues. Again, it's easy to see why there is demand for this: small-town and mid-size metro papers have been devastated by cuts in recent years and will be glad to have someone else supplying analysis of the claims being made by local political figures. Still, it shouldn't have come to this. Every reporter still working at the smaller papers should be, at bottom, a fact-checker.

*This originally stated that PolitiFact belongs to the Poynter Institute. PolitiFact is a project of the Tampa Bay Times (formerly St. Petersburg Times), which is in turn owned by Poynter.