Who are you calling a fact checker?

“In the end, I think that fact checking prevents the spread of disinformation, [keeping it] from being worse than what it could be.”

— Dr. Michelle Amazeen, assistant professor of advertising at Rider University

What is fact checking? Who’s a fact checker? Are you a fact checker? Am I?

FCP_blackAs the American Press Institute embarks on a long-term project designed to examine and improve the news industry’s process of fact checking public statements, it’s useful to have a definition.

It’s not as easy as looking it up on Wikipedia. At the end of this post, you’ll find our proposed definition of fact checking. But with the caveats that (1) it’s not the only definition of fact checking and (2) we might change it as new research and practices emerge.

Many newsroom roles involved

Here’s how it gets complicated.  Clearly, people who work for organizations like FactCheck.org and PolitiFact are fact checkers. But so are many literary professionals — such as magazine fact checkers, news researchers employed by media organizations, and librarians.

And what about copy editors? Do they not epitomize fact checking? Not so much, says longtime copy editor Brian Cleveland, now a multiplatform editor at The Washington Post. Blame the economy.

“I think there used to be a lot more overlap between fact checkers and copy editors, but as staffs have shrunk and duties have multiplied, fact checking has become something that copy editors simply have less time for,” Cleveland said in an email this week. “In my mind, fact checkers verify every single statement of fact in a story. That could take hours, which is something no copy desk has time for.”

So let’s go back to where those stories originate: the reporters. Aren’t they fact checkers? Of course, says Sean Gorman of PolitiFact Virginia. “The exercise of tracking down facts, verifying, and trying to get a thorough read on a story is something that both fact checkers and daily reporters do,” Gorman said in an email this week.

But there are differences. While a reporter may have several daily stories to write and other responsibilities, an official newsroom fact checker is immersed in one task: fact checking and making sense of it. For PolitiFact, Gorman says, “… we issue rulings on whether something is True, Mostly True, Half True, etc. The process for coming to that kind of a conclusion involves a group of three editors weighing in on what the right ruling is. Sometimes that’s a quick decision. Other times that requires a lot of extra research and reporting that extends beyond a daily deadline.”

Some people only check convenient facts

Partisan organizations — Media Matters, NewsBusters — that want to use facts to promote their particular message also employ fact checkers. And increasingly, campaign staffs include a fact checker or two. To add just another hurdle in finding the elusive definition of “fact checker” some organizations look like fact checkers, talk like fact checkers, but their agenda is hardly clear to the casual reader.

Which leads us to the slippery task of defining fact checking.

This is a free webinar thanks to a grant by the New America Foundation; check out the recorded version.

“If you’re only fact checking one side, you’re not a fact checker,” says Dr. Michelle Amazeen, a Rider University professor, quoting Michael Dobbs, the Washington Post’s inaugural “Fact Checker.”  Amazeen, who’s working on research projects for API’s fact-checking program, led a Poynter webinar titled “Making the case for fact checking in your newsroom.”

And if you make a weak attempt at presenting “both sides” of a story by enlisting the non-contextual, old-school “he-said, she-said” model of reporting — leaving confused readers to simply guess at who might be right — that is not fact checking.

Not just politics

Another thing about defining fact checking: It isn’t limited to political journalism. The process of fact checking is a valuable and marketable service for just about any beat in any newsroom.

After fact checking the facts about fact checkers and fact checking, we’d offer this guiding definition of fact checking:

Fact checkers and fact-checking organizations aim to increase understanding knowledge by re-reporting and researching the purported facts in published/recorded statements made by politicians and anyone whose words impact others’ lives and livelihoods. Fact checkers investigate verifiable facts, and their work is free of partisanship, advocacy and rhetoric.

The goal of fact checking should be to provide clear and professionally rigorously vetted information to consumers so that they may use the facts to make fully cognizant choices in voting elections and other essential decisions.

Let us know what you think.

  1. The American Press Institute’s fact-checking project, explained