Fact Checking by Newspaper is a “New Low” Politician Says

Politifact and other fact checkers are casting increasingly influential shadows of power on political dialogue.

by Matthew L. Schafer

Politifact, the Pulitzer Prize winning fact checking website, is extending its war against misinformation as it expands to state newspapers across the country.  This has both pundits and politicians sweating under its scrutiny in fear of receiving a liar liar “pants on fire” rating.

In a recent claim, Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst [R] said Phoenix had the second most kidnappings in the world behind Mexico City.  The facts?  False! The Austin American-Statesman declared on the front page.

“This is regrettably a new low for the Austin American-Statesman and for this particular group,” Dewhurst said in an interview with NPR. “It shouldn’t be in the newspaper. It should be on the editorial page. I mean, for heaven’s sake.”

Dewhurst’s dissatisfaction with the Austin American-Statesmen marks a slowly growing trend among politicians that are facing fact checking to a greater degree than ever before.  And it is not just politicians suffering scrutiny, but pundits and other prominent figures also.

The role of fact checker is foreign to most journalists.  Newspapers have always struggled to make a judgement call on the validity of a statement.  Journalists are supposed to be objective and give each side its fair share of access and time to state its case.

“The notion of objectivity continues to have a powerful pull on journalists,” media critic Tim Cook argued in his book Governing with the News.

“Journalists would no doubt say that it isn’t really their job to ferret out the “truth.” It is their job to report “facts,” Neal Graber wrote in the New York Times during the death panel controversy.

Journalists may be changing their tune, however, as they are beginning to play host internal fact checker departments.  The first fact checker on the scene, however, was not a news organization.  In 1993, the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania founded the now well-regarded “FactCheck.org.”  Started with modest goals to be an advocate for voters, FactCheck now brings in almost a million dollars a year in donations.

While news organizations’s fact checking during presidential debates became increasingly popular in the 2000, 2004, and 2008 elections, the St. Petersburg Times institutionalized the practice with Politifact.com.  Most likely prompted by the failure of the media in the run up to the Iraq war, journalists have began to call “‘em like they see ‘em” research has suggested.

Following general criticisms that the objectivity principle causes journalism to unabashedly regurgitate information, Politifact set out in May of 2007 to correct the record during run up to the 2008 presidential election and beyond.  Poltifact later won a Pulitzer Prize for its election reporting.  Other online fact checkers include Snopes.com, BreaktheChain.org, and new statewide Politifact websites including Texas, Rhode Island, Georgia, and Florida.

Politicians are often quick to point to Politifact for validation, but turn the other way when Politifact fails to vindicate their positions.  Arianna Huffington even said during a dispute with Liz Cheney on ABC’s “This Week,” “OK, I’m so glad Politifact is going to be checking this. I’m so glad.”  Huffington was less than happy when Politifact later called the statement “half true.”

Despite obvious advantages of having correct information, scholars are suggesting that all of the debunking actually reinforces misinformation.  In a political environment as polarized as the United States, research shows that debunking misinformation can reenforce the claim among agreeable partisans.  This has some reporters questioning how much debunking is too much.

“Reporting the facts is important. But so too is not reporting — or at least not focusing, day after day — on the lies,” Ezra Klein of the Washington Post wrote.

While the fact checking is sure to continue and even grow in the future as Politifact expands, some (often unhappy with the Politifact rulings) are left asking “Who is checking Politifact?”  As researcher Brendan Nyhan wrote, “There are few absolute standards of truth in political debate… partisans do not simply differ in their views of political issues, but in their factual beliefs about the world.”

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About Matthew L. Schafer

Matthew L. Schafer graduated from the University of Illinois in 2009 with a Bachelor of Science in Media Studies. He later attended Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication where he earned a Masters of Mass Communication and Georgetown University Law Center where he earned his J.D. After graduation, he will practice media law in Washington, D.C.
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