Political Pinocchios, Fact Checking, and Journalist Responsibility

by Matthew L. Schafer

No one ever said that telling the truth was easy.  As The Times’ Public Editor Arthur Brisbane recently discovered, having conversations about how to deal with the truth is even more difficult.  Brisbane, who with all good intentions, asked readers “whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.”  As Brisbane later said, readers responded bluntly, “Yes, you moron, The Times should check facts and print the truth.”

It is not only readers who responded swiftly, but journalists and commentators also.   Glenn Greenwald at Salon suggested that Brisbane’s query shows that journalists “simply do not believe that reporting facts is what they should be doing.”  This overstates the case.  Simply, the question Brisbane has asked is deceptively complicated and leads only to more questions about how journalists should deal with the truth.  At some point, the newspaper industry must find a new niche and striking out on a quest for the verifiable truth might be as good a place to start as any.

Since around the 1920s, journalists trained at universities across the country haven’t actually been taught – at least not forcefully – to be fact checkers.  Instead, many universities teach young journalists to “get both sides of the story” – an approach that is emphatically not a search for truth, but rather a quest for “fairness.”  This journalistic tactic is reinforced in newsrooms across the country, giving the politically powerful on both sides of the aisle a newspaper microphone.

Additionally, journalists in newsrooms are simply not well situated to ferret out facts for practical reasons.  In today’s political media environment, deadlines are racing towards journalists faster than I care to imagine, making thorough fact checking impractical.  Journalists who do try to quickly debunk political claims also risk losing credibility if they make a factual misstep.  Without some degree of credibility, journalists’ work is discredited, and, the game is up.  As Murrow said, “To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful.”  The nuanced question Brisbane should have asked then is “Under what conditions can reporters be fact checkers, while not risking their own credibility?”

Fact checking is a difficult proposition for anyone, because truth has gradations and not everyone agrees on where truth fades into falsity.  Just ask Bill Adair at Politifact, a project of the St. Petersberg Times devoted to fact checking, who suffered scathing outrage when Politifact chose as the “Lie of the Year” Democratic claims that Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget would “end Medicare.”  Paul Krugman, writing in The Times, wrote in response, “This is really awful. Politifact, which is supposed to police false claims in politics, has announced its Lie of the Year — and it’s a statement that happens to be true.”

Adair’s situation is informative.  Some felt that the “lie” Politifact was trying to debunk was not verifiable.  That is, it did not lend itself to a definitive judgment by a journalist as to whether it was actually true or false.  In such situations, journalists inevitably risk losing face.  Perhaps backlash of the type that Adair faced is factored into journalists’ decisions to not fact check.  (Indeed, even Greenwald, who lambasted Brisbane for, in his mind, asking whether the Times should be fact checking at all called Politifact a “scam of neutral expertise.”)

Journalists trepidation in debunking is illustrated well by Sarah Palin’s now infamous 2009 “death panel” Facebook post where she claimed that President Obama’s healthcare plan would create a “death panel” to decide who was “worthy of healthcare.”  Even though the claim was verifiable – journalists could look through the bill for themselves, after all – journalists often refused to actively debunk the claim.  Indeed, one recent study shows that in just a fifth of articles about death panels did journalists flatly label the claim false.  Oddly, in many other instances, reporters both debunked the claim and played by the rules of he said/she said reporting.  Indeed, a third of all newspaper articles relied on the he said/she said approach.

While it is cliché, journalism is in crisis, in part, because news copy is cheap (if not free) and widely available.  The Times and other newspapers then must offer readers something that other news outlets or online opinion manufacturers cannot.  In this case, that something is fact checking.  Fact checking is in many instances time and resource intensive.  Anyone can turn out a news article quoting the he said/she said between Romney and Gingrich, for example, but not everyone can devote the resources to parsing apart the candidates’ words.  Critically, unapologetically, and obviously labeling political Pinocchio’s liars should be traditional newspapers’ new niche.

This course of action will no doubt ruffle the feathers of those on the wrong side of truth, and, yes, it might also bring charges of bias.  What do newspapers really have to lose though?  Most people already believe that newspapers are biased either to the left or the right (depending on who you ask) anyway.  Moreover, most people already do not trust newspapers.  Additionally, the increasing popularity of fact checkers like FactCheck.org and Politifact shows, if nothing else, that the public wants a clear answer when such an answer exists in the first place.

If journalists do choose to change their practices and routines, it will have to be a committed change.  They must shed constraints of their traditional he said/she said approach that live within the walls of academia and newsrooms today, taking on a greater responsibility of actively searching for “the truth.”  At the same time, though, newsrooms must know that their vigilantism must be tempered by an understanding that truth is so very often elusive.


Flickr/mexicanwave

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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.
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