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How fact-checking journalism is changing politics

Even before PolitiFact’s Lou Jacobson contacted a congressional press secretary back in 2010, the spokesman’s boss had accumulated a disappointing series of low scores on the Pulitzer-winning news site’s trademarked “Truth-O-Meter.”

Several of Jacobson’s fellow reporters from the Tampa Bay Times’ national fact-checking team already had rated about half of this lawmaker’s statements false. The other half they’d checked were rated “Pants on Fire,” PolitiFact’s lowest mark. And based on Jacobson’s preliminary reporting, he warned the press secretary that the new claim he was checking was at best “half true.”

The press secretary sent Jacobson a quick email reply remarking on PolitiFact’s previous reporting:

“a half true would be a welcome addition :-)”

Instead, the final ruling turned out to be another false.

With the increasing ranks of media fact-checkers over the past decade, exchanges like this have become a fact of life for American politicians, their staffs and advisers. An annual survey by the Duke Reporters’ Lab counted at least two dozen newsrooms, national and local, that actively provide conclusive, factual reporting about the validity of the claims that bombard voters. That tally includes national sites as well as 18 regional fact-checkers based in 17 states.1 And the American Press Institute has monitored the work of dozens more that do fact-checking occasionally.

The rise of this kind of journalism has quickly infected the language of politics. PolitiFact’s “Pants on Fire” and the equally catchy “Pinocchio” rating system used by the Washington Post’s Fact Checker column often are cited in TV ads and congressional floor speeches. And in almost every level of politics, just invoking this journalism has become a shorthand way for speakers to claim a level of “truthiness.”

President Obama did it when he was touting a series of accomplishments in a 2015 speech. “I want everybody to do a fact check,” he said.2

In the Senate, Indiana Republican Dan Coats defended government surveillance programs in 2013, urging his colleagues and the media to “fact-check first.”3

And in the House, Democrat Bill Pascrell of New Jersey challenged listeners to refute his version of a 2013 budget face-off, saying: “Fact check this.”4

Behind all the talk, people who work on campaigns and in government say fact-checking is changing political dialogue and practices. Some have taken editorial fact checks to heart — modifying and even dropping lines of attack that journalists found unfair or untruthful. As a matter of routine, political players try to preempt editorial scoldings with a combination of caution and supporting documentation that can keep campaigns on the truthier side of the fact-checkers’ rating systems.

While fact-checking clearly has impact in politics, a close review also suggests that the results are not always for the best. Facts-checks have become new weapons on the political battlefield — used as shields or clubs in campaign ads, stump speeches and debates. “If you get a good ruling, you can swing it like a cudgel at your opponent through the entire campaign,” said one senior state party official in Virginia. “And there’s little if any defense.”

Rather than draining power from negative campaigning and partisan politics, fact-checking can fuel it. Political organizations regularly capitalize on fact-checkers’ credibility in ads that knowingly distort the journalists’ findings. In one case, a campaign even created a fact check of its own, dismissing an opponent’s attack as “false,” even though media fact-checkers found otherwise.

Early in North Carolina’s brutal 2014 Senate race, before Republican Thom Tillis had won his party’s nomination, a Democratic super PAC targeted him with a salacious TV commercial. The Senate Majority PAC’s ad focused on severance payments the state House speaker made to two legislative aides he’d fired for having inappropriate personal relationships with lobbyists. The Tillis campaign fired back with its own form of fact-checking. “Seen those ads attacking Thom Tillis?” a narrator asked. “They’re false” — the word “FALSE” appearing on screen in capital red letters with a big red X, blatantly borrowing the authoritative wording and imagery of media fact checks.

As it turned out, three actual media fact-checkers found that the super PAC’s claims about the severance payments were closer to the truth than Tillis’s “False.”5 But the Tillis campaign showed all the reasons political operations often find this style of reporting so useful in debates and ads — even when they use it to distort the truth.

Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said fact checks provide such effective fodder for political commercials that when campaign ad-makers want to use a “true” or “false” ruling from a journalism organization, he doesn’t always test the message on voters first, as is typically done. “It’s assumed that it’s going to have an impact,” he said.

The pollster, whose clients included 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, is less convinced that the journalists who dissect campaign messages have much direct impact on the voting public, given changing media habits. “Nobody reads the damn newspaper,” he said. But when campaigns repeat that same newspaper’s findings over and over through the megaphone of paid political advertising, they can sting.

“Just because something gets four Pinocchios doesn’t mean a damn thing,” Newhouse said. “It’s how you use it.”

About this report and the author

My own biases when it comes to the potential of fact-checking journalism are too relevant to disclose in small font or a footnote, so I’ll break the editorial fourth wall and state them here: I’m a fact-checking advocate.

As a political researcher for the Washington Post in the early 1990s, I worked for columnist David S. Broder at a time when he was pushing newsrooms like his to aggressively police and fact-check political ads on TV. I contributed to some of the Post’s early “30-Second Politics” stories and debate-night “truth squad” reports during the 1992 presidential campaign; and later created “The Debate Referee” for the Post’s online coverage of the 1996, 2000 and 2004 races. Because of that, PolitiFact founder Bill Adair used me as an informal adviser when he was first launching that site for the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times).

As a senior editor at NPR, my staff partnered with PolitiFact on “the Message Machine,” a project for the 2010 midterm elections. More recently, I have served on an advisory board for PunditFact, PolitiFact’s sister site that focuses on remarks by media commentators and analysts. (Additional disclosure: Adair is now a contributing editor at PolitiFact and a professor at Duke University’s public policy school, where I have worked with him and his Duke Reporters’ Lab on research about data reporting tools and other aspects of digital journalism.)

My views on fact-checking are not universally shared in journalism. Some news people, much like their counterparts in politics, have concerns about the true/false rating systems that most fact-checkers use. They worry that playing referee forces reporters to take sides, or that fact-checkers nitpick and depend on false balance to try to avoid appearing partisan.

Others argue that fact-checking should be an even more integral part of everyday reporting — not isolated on dedicated sites, boxes, segments and blogs or limited to campaign coverage. As Jon Stewart once asked former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw on The Daily Show, “When did fact checking and journalism separate?”6

Because of my familiarity and experience, the American Press Institute asked me to explore how this kind of reporting is changing how people in politics do their jobs. But my views are not the substance of this report. The findings here are based on an even-handed review of selected fact checks and more than a dozen interviews with people in politics and journalism — a reporting process we intended to identify the needs, flaws and challenges in fact-checking as well as evidence of its success.

A number of the newsroom fact-checkers and people who work in politics quoted here generously shared their time, experiences and recollections. Several fact-checkers shared copies of their communication with political staff, sometimes under an agreement that this report not identify the sender without that person’s permission, as the communication had not been sent as an official response intended for broadcast or publication. In some cases, those communications are quoted here anonymously to help describe the tone and relationship between fact-checkers and those they cover.

Many political professionals contacted for this report simply were not willing to be interviewed or quoted by name. In part, their reluctance reflected the churn of politics — a profession in which people’s jobs change frequently based on two- and four-year election cycles. In a handful of cases, some are quoted anonymously — a practice, worth noting, that most fact-checkers avoid in their own reporting.

Fact-checking is clearly having an impact on how political players communicate, even if that’s difficult to measure and academic research finds the effects on voters are mixed. Other studies have documented ways in which fact-checkers’ ratings spotlight inaccuracies. They also show how attempts to set the record straight can backfire and reinforce set political opinions among readers, viewers and listeners.

Rather than focus on measurable outcomes, this report aims to look for effects that are harder to quantify. It looks for patterns in how people directly involved in the process say fact checking has changed the ways political professionals behave. That includes everything from attempts to use fact checks to portray opponents as liars and to challenge the integrity of various news organizations and individual journalists.

How fact-checkers measure impact

Overall, PolitiFact’s Adair compares the cumulative effect of fact-checking to cars slowing down when they see a state trooper on the side of a highway. “There’s less lying today than there would be if there weren’t fact-checkers. There’s no doubt in my mind,” he said.

But less lying is not necessarily the mission. Adhering to the traditional sense that news is about informing citizens, not influencing political actors, many fact-checkers insist that changing how politicians and campaigns behave is not part of their job descriptions.

“I’ve never thought that success or failure should be measured by the effect it has on candidates and campaigns. It should measured by the effect it has on voters,” said Jackson, the FactCheck.org founder. “If you think you’re going to try to change a politician in a democratic system, they’re going to break your heart. This has gone on for 2,000 years.”

Jackson is the dean of U.S. fact-checkers.The former Wall Street Journal reporter’s on-air truth-wrangling for CNN in the 1990s, along with the work of a handful of reporters at other national news organizations, helped inspire the dedicated fact-checking efforts that followed. That includes the non-profit news site he started at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center in 2003, as well as PolitiFact and the Washington Post Fact Checker, which launched four years later.

Together these three sites have become “the Big Three — the automakers of fact-checking,” as dubbed by Kara Carscaden, Obama’s 2012 deputy campaign press secretary. Jackson’s voter-focused approach still serves as a template for most of those journalists, and for many others around the world who’ve adopted a similar model in their countries.7

“I don’t write this stuff for politicians,” said Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker columnist. “Politicians are going to do what they’re going to do. The point of the fact checks is to inform voters.”

Because it generally eschews the all-too-common posturing by reporters for access and their quest for insider tidbits, fact-checking can be a radically different journalistic process. “We don’t have to schmooze and kiss people’s asses,” said PolitiFact editor Angie Drobnic Holan.

At the same time, Holan said the work can be intense and time-consuming for reporters and political staffs alike. And both sides labor over every detail. To that end, Holan said she often quotes an axiom she attributes to Amy Sherman, a Miami Herald reporter who works on the PolitiFact Florida team: “Let’s fight before we publish, not after.”

To the people on the other end of the phone line or the email exchange, these fact-checkers are not really referees or umpires — officials whose calls they must heed. Rather, they are more like dealers at a casino table, turning over cards they must decide how to play.

How political players react to fact-checking

This report looks at examples of some common and controversial ways political players respond to media fact-checking, including:

  • Validating: Having the facts on your side is one way to win an argument. That may be why nearly every member of Congress who referred to media fact checks in their floor speeches and debates in 2013 and 2014 cited stories whose findings they agreed with.
  • Weaponizing: Journalists may do fact checks to set the record straight and end arguments, but their reporting often ends up becoming part of the discussion — and, as TV ads often demonstrate, part of the distortion.
  • Standing their ground: Disciplined political players stay on message, even in the face of significant fact-checking. Some think they’re right. Some think they’re immune.
  • Going nuclear: One way people in politics “stand their ground” is to take on the fact-checkers directly. This kind of “shoot the messenger” strategy is rare, but it can be effective — at least with base supporters.
  • Going silent: Some communicators will become so frustrated with fact-checkers that they simply stop answering their questions. But “the silent treatment” can come at a political price, too.
  • Modifying, preparing and preempting: Politicians don’t enjoy being publicly corrected, so many now rely on their staffs to anticipate fact-checking while they are crafting their messages. For those working in national politics or in media markets with local fact-checkers, that means a lot of work. But it also pays off.
  1. Bill Adair and Ishan Thakore, “Fact-Checking Census finds continued growth around the world” Duke Reporters Lab, Jan. 19, 2015; updated data
  2. Louis Jacobson, “Barack Obama urges audience to ‘do a fact-check.’ We oblige,” PolitiFact.com, Feb. 20, 2015
  3. Congressional Record, June 17, 2013
  4. Congressional Record, Oct. 8, 2013
  5. D’Angelo Gore, “Tillis Response Ad Cries ‘False,'” FactCheck.org, April 22, 2014; Glen Kessler, “A claim of ‘false’ when the ad is basically true,” Washington Post, April 23, 2014; Julie Kliegman, “Thom Tillis, Senate Majority PAC disagree on disgraced staffers,” PolitiFact, April 25, 2014
  6. The Daily Show, Sept. 4, 2012
  7. Bill Adair and Ishan Thakore, “Fact-Checking Census finds continued growth around the world,” Duke Reporters Lab, Jan. 19, 2015; updated data

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