Explainer: Are Fact-Checkers Keeping Politicians More Honest?

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Did you hear anything in the last Republican debate that pricked your ears? 

A statistic about job creation in Texas, or evidence of the Obama administration's failed economic policies, that sounded a little off? Without doing an extensive amount of digging, you probably would have had to wait at least a day to find what you were looking for: Whether the thing you heard the politician say was true or false.

By that time, it's not necessarily the newspapers or the networks that would have an answer wrapped up for you in a neat little package, objective and easy to understand. It would be small, third-party fact-checking websites.

Such moments abound at this point in the election cycle. Everyone's touting their records and trying to undermine their opponents'. The sources vary, the particular charges vary, and the framing of each accusation or talking point varies.

If you're curious and engaged enough in politics, you may have googled each suspect claim you heard last night right then and there. You may have found reporters tweeting or live-blogging quotes, and an hour later you might have found those quotes in an article.

But without doing an extensive amount of digging, you probably would have had to wait at least a day to find what you were looking for: Whether the thing you heard the politician say was true or false. By that time, it's not necessarily the newspapers or the networks that would have an answer wrapped up for you in a neat little package, objective and easy to understand. It would be small, third-party fact-checking websites.

Keeping politicians honest—it's a role that major journalistic outlets rarely have the time and capacity to play anymore.

Are politicians lying more?

Fact-checking has grown from a cottage industry to a competitive corner of the journalism market, with sites like PolitiFact and FactCheck getting hundreds of thousands of page views a day. Are politicians lying more, or are traditional media outlets falling down on the job?

The better question might be, are we thinking about modern journalism the wrong way?

It's not so much that the average politician is a bigger liar—it's that they have infinitely more opportunities to lie, or simply to make an error. A 24-hour news cycle and a 24-month campaign cycle yield countless sound bytes per politician per day. Elected officials are almost always on, and they're almost always mic'd. Add blogging and tweeting to the equation, and the internet practically becomes a grease trap for every word that comes out of a politician's mouth.

It's impossible in these circumstances that everything a pol says is absolutely true. But it is possible in these circumstances to evaluate certain statements—the ones that distort policies or records, the ones that they use to garner support for a cause, the ones that they use to get elected—for their factual accuracy. Politicians aren't necessarily lying more than ever, but it's easier than ever for us to tell when they are.

If it's easier than ever, why do we need third-party sites like FactCheck to investigate truth in message? Why isn't every reporter fact-checking the statements they're reporting?

Maybe because they can't, or couldn't—or shouldn't even try.

Adair's epiphany

Bill Adair admits that as a political reporter for the St. Petersburg Times, he didn't see fact-checking as his primary role. Eventually, that bothered him.

"I have done a lot of political reporting in the past, but I had not done hardly any fact-checking," Adair says. "And I felt guilty. I felt that I had allowed the people I'd covered to say things that, at the time, I suspected were probably wrong, but felt like it was not the role of the [political] journalist to fact check them."

The tipping point came during the 2004 presidential election. Adair remembers covering the Republican National Convention that year.

"[Senator] Zell Miller gave a speech attacking John Kerry about supposedly voting against defense, and I knew that all the things Zell Miller was talking about were overwhelmingly a matter of the difference between Republican and Democratic bills," Adair says. "They put up these bills so the other side can vote against them, and then they say 'Aha! We got you. You voted against defense.' I knew that the things Zell Miller was talking about were not substantive, but they were portrayed that way in his speech, and I didn’t fact-check it."

(The 2004 election would turn out to be a watershed moment for fact-checking. Questionable justifications for the Iraq war, the "swift-boating" of John Kerry, Dick Cheney's involvement with Halliburton—distortions ran rampant. FactCheck popped up during the election cycle, and in 2005 NewsTrust came into existence as well.)

In 2007, when the St. Petersburg Times was gearing up for the 2008 presidential election, Bill Adair pitched the idea of an online fact-checking arm of the paper's news coverage, a service that would track things that politicians like Zell Miller said and rate how true they were. Four years later, Adair is the editor of PolitiFact, a website with 32 full-time journalists nationwide and six-figure daily page views.

Too much work for the average reporter

There's still exponentially more reporting than there is fact-checking; while the St. Petersburg Times enlisted a team of dedicated fact-checkers, not every news outlet followed suit. That's because reporting and fact-checking don't always go hand-in-hand, or doing both isn't always affordable—if that feels weird to read on a news website, it is. We're getting kind of "meta" here. 

The notion that reporters aren't arbiters of truth may be conceptually difficult, and it definitely challenges the way most people think about consuming information. In the new media landscape, you might turn to a major establishment like the New York Times to see the latest thing that Rick Perry said, but it's likely you'd have to go to a different, smaller website to get a detailed analysis of whether what he said was true or false.

Perhaps reporters can't be fact-checkers. "We've all got too much work to do and too many assignments that you have to pick and choose," Bill Adair says, reflecting on his time in the field. "I was there [in 2004] to cover the campaign, what these guys were saying...Political reporters focus on their stuff and figure that someone else will do the fact-checking."

The modern news cycle gives politicians way more chances to stretch the truth, but it also stretches reporters thin, giving them far less time to investigate the avalanche of claims they record at every press conference. The St. Petersburg Times needed to employ journalists whose sole purpose would be checking facts; covering politics day-to-day would be left to other reporters. Not every newspaper can afford to do that, or is willing to make the investment.

When Bill Adair heard Zell Miller say things like, "John Kerry would let Paris decide when America needs defending," he was too busy covering the event and writing the story to go into why such claims were inaccurate. At the time, however, FactCheck was able to pick up the slack, publishing the very corrections that Adair had imagined.

The fracturing of these responsibilities may be for the best, but it also requires an audience willing to dig beyond the daily reportage.

Are audiences listening?

The truth is that most audiences aren't going to take the time to consult a variety of sources. Marjorie Hershey, a professor of political science at Indiana University, says that makes it difficult to get fact-checking information to the masses.

"Many people who agree with the general political orientation of the person who's making that claim will not take the time to find out if it's true, and the segmentation of media audiences allows people who want to get their news entirely from one political perspective to be entirely free of fact-checking," Hershey says. "Most people who read blogs, for instance, choose to read only blogs that represent one side of political debate—strongly liberal or strongly conservative."

Everyone has a right to choose their source for information, Hershey observes, regardless of fairness or accuracy. News is a free market; if the audience doesn't care that what they're reading hasn't been fact-checked, or could be spun by the outlet, or may dispense with objectivity, then so be it. If your hierarchy of needs as an information consumer puts reinforcing your views ahead of evaluating the soundness of your views, you're less likely to look at a site like PolitiFact.

That seems to be the case for most of us: CNN, Fox News, Huffington Post, and many other news/editorial sites smash fact-checking sites in terms of traffic and page views.

The information contained in fact-checking sites isn't just useful for the average consumer, though. "I don't think most people take the time to look at fact-checking sites," Hershey says, "but the candidates' opponents do, and they can spread the corrected information."

Victories for the fact-checkers

Indeed, there's some anecdotal evidence that people in high places are listening to fact-checkers. That may be just as important, if not more important, than getting the ear of a consumer.

During a vice presidential debate in 2004, Dick Cheney said that a FactCheck story had "defended his tenure while CEO of Halliburton". (FactCheck, however, published a correction subsequently, claiming Cheney distorted the website's claims—and also called them a .com URL, when they're actually .org)

Bill Adair remembers an instance where PolitiFact may have gotten President Obama to edit one of his talking points. 

"In February of 2008, he gave a speech at T.C. Williams high school in Alexandria, Virginia, where he said gas prices were the highest they’ve ever been," Adair says. "He was wrong; they were higher, when you control for inflation, back in 1981." PolitiFact gave him a "False" for that on their Truth-O-Meter.

Adair recognizes that correlation doesn't necessarily equal causation, but he takes what happened next as a small victory for the site. "The next night, when [Obama] came to the part in his speech where he says that line, he said it correctly."

Earlier this year, PolitiFact gave The Daily Show's Jon Stewart a "False" for saying that Fox News viewers were "the most consistently misinformed media viewers" according to "every poll". The next night, Stewart addressed the correction.

"You see examples like that and plenty more where we have gone to someone with a false statement, and they'd be like, 'We’ll change this right now,'" Adair continues. "There have been a fair number of examples where people have changed what they're saying."

Journalism, not activism

Bill Adair may consider these victories, but he doesn't think of himself as a crusader.

"My goal is not to get politicans to stop lying," Adair says. "Fundamentally, it is the role of journalists to hold public officials accountable for their words...If there's less lying, that’s great; but I'm a journalist, not an activist."

It's strange that reporting the truth could make people mistake you for an activist. One could lament dividing labor between reporters and fact-checkers—the proliferation of information without a comparable proliferation of fact-checking. But we may have to settle for an imperfect synergy, rather than charge every reporter with the Sisyphean task of making sure the words they transcribe are true.

"If Speaker Boehner says that the president's jobs bill won't help, and the president says it will, it would be almost impossible for journalists to reach a conclusion as to which one is 'right,'" Marjorie Hershey says. "I think the journalist's job in that case is to present both views and probe both speakers as fully as possible to be able to report the evidence for their view."

If we need third-party fact-checkers to do the probing, so be it.