There’s something wrong with a world where a four-letter word like “fact” can cause such trouble. That’s what journalism is supposed to be about: unearthing facts and presenting them without bias to reveal as complete a story as possible.
Unbiased news reporting should not present just the facts that are convenient or that support just one side. Opinion pages are a different matter altogether, and in most places—my newspaper included—the operations are independent of each other.
Internet and cable network proliferation have erased that line for some outlets, though (I’m looking at you, Fox News and all you other “news” channels), making it difficult at times to determine who is telling the unbiased truth. And when your crazy Uncle Harry can have a blog and post whatever passes through his brain, well … it sorta explains the need for fact-checking.
Nonpartisan fact-checkers like PolitiFact and FactCheck.org were preceded by sites that wore (and still wear) their biases on their sleeves, such as Media Matters for America (liberal) and NewsBusters (conservative), that we use sparingly at the paper.
The 2012 presidential election campaign has been called the most-fact-checked in history, which might have been helped a little by Mitt Romney pollster Neil Newhouse’s declaration that the Romney campaign would not be run by fact-checkers. Add to that accusations of bias, particularly against PolitiFact, and it appears the search for truth has hit a roadblock.
One of the rules I use when fact-checking is the two-source rule—unique reporting in at least two places—with one preferably being the original source. If I find something in only one place (the same story reposted in multiple places only counts as one), I won’t use it at all, or not without clear attribution to the original source.
I’ve been asked many times why I use PolitiFact and FactCheck (though they’re far from the only sources we use here; see more at the end of this post), and though each falls short at times, on the whole I believe they tend to be far more accurate than many other sites. Additionally, they rely on original sources and peer-reviewed research, and more importantly, original reporting (the staffs are, after all, current and former reporters and editors). Their funding sources are also disclosed clearly, which is more than can be said for some sites.
So why the ruckus? Blame it on, for one, the over-politicized atmosphere of today.
Conservative Fact Check backed up its claim of bias by PolitiFact by counting “Pants on Fire” rulings by party, then noting that the presence of more negative fact-checks on Republicans indicated clear bias, saying, “To have any semblance of fairness, PolitiFact should play it 50/50 and present an equal number of lies from both sides. They clearly are not concerned with any pretense.”
It also noted: “They also unfairly tarnish Michele Bachmann as a liar, when anybody who follows her already understands that many of her statements aren’t meant to be truthful in the first place—she simply says what she feels.”
Nah, that’s not the least bit sexist or demeaning.
Both arguments from Conservative Fact Check should trouble anyone concerned with truth and perceptions of reality, especially if you ruminate on the many ironies of the statements or the concept of using a quota (Really? Don’t you guys hate quotas?). Or that the site had to cut ties with its Obama birth certificate “expert” after it was revealed that “TechDude” was a fake … who’d been outed several years prior. Apparently fact-checking wasn’t involved in taking him on.
Blogger Bryan White of PolitiFactBias.com doesn’t hide his bias on that site or his newer Zebra Fact Check, which claims that facts are black or white. While I’m sure his intentions are good, the posts I checked seemed to suffer from the same problems (selection bias, relativism, parsing of language, etc.) that White claims other sites have. And gosh, most of the statements checked are from Democrats or from PolitiFact, which, darn it, is a bit south of 50/50 treatment.
Dartmouth professor Brendan Nyhan and Georgia State professor Jason Reifler published research in 2012 for the New America Foundation on correcting misinformation, noting that journalists face the combination of an audience that seeks out like-minded source and tends to reject correction, thus sometimes causing corrections to backfire and reinforce mistaken beliefs. (We call this “digging in,” which is best epitomized by a 2-year-old’s prolonged tantrum after not getting his way.)
Despite this, Nyhan and Reifler note that in time fact-checking may reduce the incentive for the spread of misleading claims. One can only hope.
Fact-checking detractors, though, like to point to a 2013 study from the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University, which claims to empirically prove PolitiFact’s liberal bias. I’m not sure I’d put much stock in it myself, as the self-described nonpartisan center receives the majority of its funding from conservative groups, according to SourceWatch. Yep, everyone has an agenda.
An earlier one-year study, also on PolitiFact, from Smart Politics is also cited; that study notes that proportion of Republican to Democratic lies, but focuses on selection bias, which I believe is definitely a valid point for any fact-checking organization. Whether it proved actual bias, though, is arguable. One critic in the comments section (Vito) noted that to prove bias, the study would need to prove “either 1) systematic and repeated omissions from their ratings of widely heard false statements from Democrats or 2) varied standards for rating statements, according to party.”
I can’t really disagree with that.
Bill Adair, the creator of PolitiFact, told PBS’ Mediashift blog in 2008 that political reporters were previously held back by the idea of reporting what both sides say without calling out falsehoods: “Political journalists—myself included—have been too timid about fact-checking in the past because we were afraid we would be criticized for being biased. But facts aren’t biased. Now, we are finally calling the balls and strikes in the campaign the way we should have in the past.”
Adair added, “Our job is not to get politicians to stop lying. Our job is to inform voters.
“After that, it’s up to the voters.”
And he’s right. Voters should seek out truth, not just opinions with which they agree.
Fact-checking can help, but only if we’re willing to listen and judge based on facts, not bias dressed up as facts. Truly informed voters, I believe, can tell the difference for themselves.
OK, so here are just a few of the many sites we use to fact-check material for the Voices page. Yep, sometimes I’m not sure how we get the page put out every day.
The Journalist’s Toolbox from SPJ is a nice roundup of site links. We’re pretty much all big nerds, really.
OpenSecrets keeps track of the money in politics. If I only got the amount of money some of these guys get …
The Government Accountability Office has many research reports available for download.
The Congressional Research Service also provides lots of research.
The Federal Register at the Government Printing Office can give you just about all the regulations (and more) that you’ll ever need.
GovTrack will help you find out the status of that bill on caterpillar farming. (Somewhere, someone probably actually does this, and I’d love to meet that weirdo.)
The National Archives are a personal favorite, with just about anything related to our nation’s government and history available. I’ve spent many hours here.
Quote Investigator is a great source for finding out if Winston Churchill really said “A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.” (Their ruling: There’s evidence he used the quip, but a review of the literature shows he likely wasn’t the original source.)
Monticello.org is the best repository for everything Thomas Jefferson, and the Spurious Quotation section is enlightening, scary and a bit hilarious.
BibleGateway, in addition to helping you find specific verses, you can also look up verses in parallel translations for comparison. Other sites do this as well, but I got hooked on this site’s ease when I used to edit religion stories.
Have a question or tip about research? Feel free to let me know; learning is a lifelong process. Plus, my brain hurts sometimes, so I can use the help.