Fact checking in 2014 kept journalists, critics and readers busy. First, the midterm election rhetoric nearly buried fact checkers and voters under an avalanche of fact-bending designed to scare seniors, veterans, West Virginians.
Then came the Rolling Stone “A Rape on Campus” tale, where much-discussed fact-checking failures will haunt journalism for quite awhile — along with the the alleged teen stock whiz embarrassment and factual errors in reporting on the Ferguson, Mo., protests.
The silver lining, though, is this: The abundance of reporting on fact-checking (or lack of it) in 2014 helped to promote its importance by pointing out the harm and misguidance that can be unleashed in its absence.
That in mind, the American Press Institute’s Fact-Checking Project, with help from fact-checking fans and practitioners, offers our fact-checking predictions for 2015 — the good and the bad, along with some wishful thinking.
First, the good stuff:
- Media organizations will gear up for more and better fact checking.The 2014 midterm elections were junior varsity. Stay tuned for the big leagues. Ad spending for the 2016 election cycle is expected to be more than $8 billion. That presents even more opportunity for misrepresentation, innuendo and outright lying. This time, there will be a greater emphasis on live fact-checking of major speeches and debates, Eugene Kiely of FactCheck.org told me.
- Fact-shaming becomes a thing. The same internet that brought you the feeling you can get away with anything online can also punish you for trying. Using sites like Emergent and Grasswire, friends shame friends for posting incredulous stories on social media without the slightest bit of fact-checking or skepticism. And media won’t shy away from calling out other media for factual mistakes, as evidenced by the Rolling Stone debacle and this Deadspin takedown of Vox.com. We’ll find out if shame is fleeting.
- The newspaper correction will be more than just an obtuse paragraph hidden on page 11. Sensing that trust is a big deal these days with media consumers, media organizations will investigate errors, apologize, and change policies and procedures so it doesn’t happen again. Some will vow to do better.
- Just in time for election season, journalists will get an assist from the FCC, Ryan Sibley, data and applications editor at the Sunlight Foundation, told me. In December, the FCC proposed to require all television and radio stations to publicly post information about political ad buys.
- Truth-telling tools expand and improve. Skeptive, Rumor-Gauge, True Politics, and Trooclick are tools that help media consumers and journalists assess political rhetoric and other statements — particularly in social media. Each is in various stages of development and improvement. And there’s more to come, says Tamar Wilner, a consultant with API’s fact-checking project who’s written about truth-telling tools for Columbia Journalism Review. “In 2015, we can expect to see researchers and entrepreneurs debut new, inventive ways of detecting and combating misinformation in its most natural breeding ground: social media,” Wilner told me.
- Commenters who don’t deal in facts will be outed. Too often, misinformation is chewed up and spit out in the form of online comments, making a bad thing even worse. Tools like Fiskkit and TruthinessCheck strive to promote civility, logic and, as TruthinessCheck says, “an end to mindless diatribe.”
- Some colleges will increase the teaching of accuracy and accountability — and not just in journalism schools. “The Rolling Stone piece with its questionable account of one serial rape will be taught at UVa and in journalism schools for many years as an explosive blend of shoddy reporting and inadequate fact-checking,” writes Bob Gibson, a former journalist and now director of the Sorensen Institute at the University of Virginia.
Some potentially troublesome trends in 2015:
- Misinformation gets aggregated, too. In her 2015 Nieman Lab prediction, Melody Kramer predicted that “news organizations…will devote considerable resources towards aggregating the work of their peers.” Aggregation — typically, rewriting and repetition with no fact checking — can result in the spread of misinformation. There are legions of examples, including this bogus “children-trapped-in-hot-car” story aggregated without even a call to the local police departments by news organizations that should have known better.
- “Faux checking” and fake news become more insidious. We’ll be on the lookout for “fact-checking” sites created by campaigns and special interest groups, as well as fake live “fact-checking” during debates and speeches. Fake news sites like this one will thrive on social media shares.
“I think a bigger problem…will be challenging the digital echo-chambers in which lies or half-truths can reverberate unchecked.”
- Growth in social media equals growth in fabulosity of misinformation. With every new platform designed to reach masses of like-minded people comes the opportunity to spread misinformation. The logical answer is to match that growth with fact-checking firepower, but journalism got in the game too late and is dismally behind. Will Knight, an editor with the MIT Technology Review, told me: “I think a bigger problem, and one that needs to be addressed to ensure a healthy political discourse, will be challenging the digital echo-chambers in which lies or half-truths can reverberate unchecked.”
- Ideologues ignore factual evidence. Research has shown that some people, when presented with clear facts that defy their dearly held beliefs, cannot be swayed. This concerns Joe Germuska, who helps direct the Knight Lab at Northwestern University: “On a recent DecodeDC podcast, Andrea Seabrook raised the issue that Americans are increasingly voting as an expression of self, rather than because of specific policies or expectations of their preferred candidates,” Germuska told me. “This has me worried that fact checking will have less impact, as many voters will ‘look the other way’ if the candidate provides that desired ideological reinforcement.”
And finally, that fuzzy line between predictions and wishful thinking. It may be a wish list, but logic and timing suggest the following scenarios could happen in 2015.
- Accuracy and reliability become marketing assets. “We had it first” will be replaced by “We had it right” in media promotions.
- Cuba gets fact checked. In the Americas, Cuba is arguably the worst place to be a journalist. But with the restoration of U.S.-Cuba diplomacy, government officials have an opportunity to stop handing out sanctions against journalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists: “…the argument used by Havana to imprison, harass, and intimidate independent journalists has lost its foundation.” An international fact-checking group, organized by Duke University professor Bill Adair in 2014, awaits you, Cuba. Hay esperanza.
- Fact checkers unite and promote. Harriett Levin Balkind, a former advertising executive and the founder of HonestAds.org, predicts that U.S. fact checkers will band together for “a cohesive communication effort to make fact checking top-of-mind for potential voters during the 2016 national election,” Balkind told me.
- Fact checking gets a desk and a 401K. Yes, some newsrooms will continue to shrink in 2015. But the remaining staff will be reconfigured to address the issues most important to the media organization’s particular audience. Accuracy and accountability reporting will be two of those issues, and copy editors and reporters with real fact-checking skills will be hired by media organizations.
- The inside story becomes an essential part of the story. Within stories or as standalone stories, more media organizations will be willing to explain their research, data analysis, and how they arrived at the truth. The role of editors, copy editors and fact-checkers will be elevated and identified on major projects.
We’ll check back in 12 months.
For media organizations: Are you planning to start or improve fact-checking efforts in 2015? Contact us for our guidelines to help you set up a bulletproof fact-checking process.