‘Fact Check This’: How U.S. politics adapts to media scrutiny
Media fact-checking has become a fact of life for political professionals, especially at the national level and in places where local news organizations have dedicated reporters to verifying statements by elected officials, candidates and their supporters.
This report looks at the ways the people who make those statements are adapting to the increased scrutiny. It is based on a review of responses to selected fact-checking reports and more than a dozen conversations with people in politics and journalism about how fact checking has changed their behavior. Some responses show how this style of coverage helps correct public statements and make political arguments more precise. But evidence also shows that fact-checking can be used to fuel the negative politics some of its proponents hope to counteract.
Some of the key findings are:
- Political professionals anticipate fact-checking. They frame and back up public statements in advance to avoid being “PolitiFacted,” as Republicans Jeb Bush and Rick Perry put it in the early days of the 2016 presidential campaign.1 Political teams have devoted significant time and staff to responding to this kind of reporting — a process some compared to “a legal discovery process” and “going down the rabbit hole.”
- Politicians frequently cite fact checks by news organizations to validate their arguments. They do so even if grudgingly or with an added jab at the media in general or fact-checking in particular. A review of House and Senate statements from 2013 and 2014 found that lawmakers cited national media fact checks 80 times in floor speeches and debates to reinforce their own point of view or to challenge an opponent’s argument. Only three statements in the Congressional Record for that period quarreled with the fact-checkers’ findings.
- Political actors regularly “weaponize” fact checks. Candidates, staff and supporters, including party organizations and independent expenditure groups, cite fact checks in TV ads and debates to refute attacks and undermine opponents’ credibility. Political organizations also mischaracterize fact-checkers’ reporting or present the journalists’ conclusions in ways that are inaccurate or misleading.
- Politicians ignore fact checks that contradict core strategic messages. Even persistent fact-checking may be disregarded when the conclusions undermine messages that are core to the campaign strategy, as both parties’ presidential nominees demonstrated in 2012. As one political ad-maker confided, “we’re not going to let fact-checkers write our ads anymore.”
- Campaigns and supporters sometimes attack the fact-checkers. In a few races, a candidate’s supporters have “gone nuclear” on fact-checkers, mounting public campaigns to attack the credibility of news organizations and individual fact-checkers. In other cases, politicians have used the “silent treatment” as a way to deflect adverse reporting. “If you’re on the field, you’re probably going to get tackled,” said a state party official who was involved in one hard-hitting response to fact-checking (detailed in this report).
- Fact-checkers need to experiment with different storytelling forms and formats. These can increase their reach and impact with the voting public and counteract misuse of their work. Experiments need to take into account how voters absorb media fact-checking and why they sometimes reject it. Fact-checkers also need to anticipate ways political players will use their reporting.
This report was not written to defend or criticize how politicians use media fact-checking, nor to fact-check the fact-checkers. It has no Pinocchios to issue or pants to set on fire.
Instead, it examines patterns in the ways American political players and their message machines respond to editorial fact-checking — behavior that demonstrates the significant role this reporting can play in the course of a campaign or political debate. As Brooks Jackson, founder of FactCheck.org, put it, “If they thought we didn’t matter there wouldn’t be any campaigns paying attention to us.”
- Joshua Gillin, “Jeb Bush: ‘Only because I am going to be PolitiFacted,’” PolitiFact, Dec. 2, 2014; W. Gardner Selby, “Rick Perry gets a laugh out of Texas Truth-O-Meter,” PolitiFact Texas, Jan. 15, 2015 ↩
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