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Fact-checking and accountability journalism: Popular, effective — but sometimes misunderstood

FCP logoMost people who studied journalism or communication at a broad selection of schools across the United States believe that fact-checking journalism — a relatively new form of accountability reporting in politics — is effective at improving political discourse, according to a new survey.

About two-thirds of graduates of communication and journalism, or 65 percent, across two generations say they believe fact-checking is an effective form of journalism, according to the survey conducted by the American Press Institute in partnership with 22 universities. That support from the schools’ alumni for “fact-checking journalism” holds true across age groups and employees of a range of media, and is also true of people who work in journalism and those who do not.

Read “Facing Change,” the full survey of 10,000 journalism graduates.

The full study, believed to be the largest ever undertaken of those who studied journalism and communication in the United States, included more than 10,000 respondents. Part of the study  addressed some respondents’ views on fact-checking journalism, which the survey defined as “news organizations producing content that is branded under a special title and rates or judges the accuracy of claims by politicians and government officials.”

In all, 15 percent of those surveyed say they believe fact-checking journalism is “very effective.” Another 50 percent believe it is “somewhat effective.”

Fewer than one in 10 (9 percent) believe it is ineffective, and 11 percent are unsure or say it is neither effective nor ineffective, according to the survey, which was conducted April 14-June 29 this year.

Percent
Very effective 15%
Somewhat effective 50%
Neither effective nor ineffective 11%
Somewhat ineffective 6%
Very ineffective 3%
Not sure/no opinion 15%

Data Source: Facing Change: The needs, attitudes and experiences of people in media

American Press Institute

Despite the favorable responses, however, only a relatively small number of those employed in journalism say their news organizations feature fact-checking — at least as a recognizable, branded operation monitoring political rhetoric.

A total of 17 percent of those who work in journalism say their organizations have a dedicated fact-checking feature. Sixty-one percent said their organization doesn’t typically do this kind of branded or dedicated journalism — and interestingly, nearly 1 in 5 (22 percent) said they didn’t know.

Percent
Yes, my organization has a dedicated
fact-checking feature or brand as an
ongoing feature
11%
Yes, my organization has a dedicated
fact-checking feature or brand but only
during elections
6%
No, we don’t typically do this
kind of branded or dedicated
61%
I don’t know 22%

Data Source: Facing Change: The needs, attitudes and experiences of people in media

American Press Institute

The survey also finds that not all those of who say their employers do “branded” fact-checking work at news organizations: 11 percent work at commercial product companies, which presumably fact-check rhetoric and media about their company or industry. Another 6 percent said they worked in education, perhaps referring to university partnerships with news organizations to produce fact-checking journalism. Five percent said they worked for think tanks, political parties and other politics-related fields.

Previous findings from the larger survey, concerning journalism education and attitudes about the news industry, were released in August. The research into attitudes among journalists and the broader cohort of those who studied journalism and communication helped to inform API’s Fact-Checking Project, a multi-year effort to learn more about fact-checking journalism, particularly in political reporting as the 2016 elections approach.

The fact that so many, even in journalism, are unsure if their own organizations do fact-checking indicates some element of confusion — among journalists and media consumers alike — about the definition of fact-checking journalism.

The fact-checking movement in journalism dates back more than 25 years, to the early 1990s, with its roots in the policing of TV advertising rhetoric and so-called “ad boxes.” The movement gained new momentum with the launch in 2007 of PolitiFact, probably the most recognizable of political fact-checking brands, which now operates in eight states. FactCheck.org, based at the University of Pennsylvania, began in 2003 as a nonprofit that fact-checks topics of national significance and makes its content available to news organizations at no charge. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker became a permanent feature in 2011. Smaller news organizations including the Arizona Republic’s “AZ Fact Check” and Gannett’s KUSA-TV’s “Truth Test” in Denver also operate year-round and cover both political and non-political issues.

Support for fact-checking is even higher among those whose organizations have such features. Here, 83 percent say it is an effective form of policing political rhetoric, with 21 percent saying it’s “very effective” and another 62 percent say it’s “somewhat effective.”

Among those respondents whose organizations don’t have specific fact-checking programs, 14 percent consider it “very” effective and 52 percent “somewhat” effective.

Those whose organizations do fact-checking Those whose organizations do not typically do fact-checking
Very effective 21% 14%
Somewhat effective 62% 52%
Neither effective nor ineffective 6% 12%
Somewhat ineffective 4% 6%
Very ineffective 2% 3%
Not sure/no opinion 4% 13%

Data Source: Question: Overall, for whatever reason, how effective or ineffective do you believe "fact-checking journalism" is?
Facing Change: The needs, attitudes and experiences of people in media

American Press Institute

Some journalists whose organizations don’t do fact-checking said it was a matter of resources.  

“Like the idea but we are a small staff,” one respondent volunteered.

“We don’t but I wish we did,” said another.

“I think we would like to do this, but we have to get so much content on the air every day… . We often don’t have time to look as deeply into these issues as we need to,” offered yet another.

And some said their organization had stopped doing fact-checking, though it was unclear whether it was a matter of resources or skepticism by the organization over its value. “We did but have recently discontinued the feature,” said a respondent.

Respondents who said they work in the relatively new field of audience engagement, which in the survey encompasses social media and community-produced content, also are enthusiastic about fact-checking. Nearly 91 percent of those whose news organizations do this type of work and had an opinion consider fact-checking “very” or “somewhat” effective, compared with 88 percent in general.

The figures are interesting, considering that misinformation on social media is a significant issue in journalism. Earlier API research, for instance, has indicated that false information on Twitter outpaces corrective information by more than 3 to 1.

Journalism challenges and opportunities

The sample size of this survey is large enough that it made possible some interesting cross-tabulations. As an example, does the fact that someone works at a news organization that engages in fact-checking, a relatively proactive form of news, influence how they view journalism in general? Are those who work at organizations that do fact-checking more optimistic than others about journalism’s future, or do they see the challenges facing journalism differently than others?

The basic answer is yes. Working at news organizations that do fact-checking does correlate to some different views about journalism. For instance, people who work at news organizations with branded fact-checking are less inclined to think that there is too much opinion and false information on the web. In general, however, people who studied communication as undergraduates or graduates think that this is the biggest problem facing journalism today, with 57 percent saying “the flood of opinion and false information on the Internet” is the biggest challenge facing journalism today. But among those whose organizations do fact-checking, that number is 43 percent.

Are people whose organizations do fact-checking generally more optimistic about the future of journalism? Twenty-nine percent believe journalism has improved.  For those who don’t work in organizations that do fact-checking, that number is 21 percent.

Working at news organizations that do fact-checking does correlate to some different views about journalism.

Perhaps as might be expected, those who are skeptical of fact-checking are also skeptical about the direction news is going in general.  About a third (32 percent) of those who feel that fact-checking is “ineffective” say that journalism quality has declined greatly, vs. 22 percent who believe in fact-checking.

Those who work at organizations with fact-checking features are more inclined to think that technology is benefiting journalism by letting people tell stories in ways that weren’t possible before: 73 percent vs. 63 percent at organizations without branded fact-checking.

They also are somewhat less likely to think people can more easily find what they need today (28 percent vs. 36 percent). And they are somewhat more likely to think that news is a two-way conversation (27 percent vs. 21 percent).

These respondents also are more inclined to think that one of the top challenges facing journalism is that media companies themselves are to blame because they need to adapt faster: 45 percent vs. 34 percent for those whose organizations don’t do branded fact-checking.

While fact-checking is growing — API research released earlier this year showed the number of fact-check stories in the U.S. news media increased by more than 300 percent from 2008 to 2012 — the study reinforces other data that the majority of news organizations do not have a regular branded effort to produce this type of coverage. The relative recency and scarcity could lead to some misunderstanding of fact-checking as a form of accountability journalism.

Some comments made by respondents in this survey might demonstrate that confusion:

“I do fact checking the old fashioned way. I check facts. I don’t understand this new kind.”

“Copy editors do all fact-checking.“

“This question isn’t for freelancers!”

“This doesn’t apply as I don’t write political content.”

“We fact check with [our attorney].”

Misunderstanding the meaning of fact-checking also may have led to the number of respondents who offered no opinion on the issue: 16 percent said they weren’t sure, had no opinion, or did not answer.

Younger respondents were less likely than older respondents to offer an opinion on fact-checking’s effectiveness. In the survey, 32 percent of those ages 21-34 offered no opinion on fact-checking journalism; compared to 18 percent of those 55 and older. That high “no-response” number likely is due to younger respondents’ lack of exposure to or knowledge about fact-checking as a form of journalistic reporting.

Journalism skills and fact-checking

There also are some correlations between whether someone works at an organization that does fact-checking or not and what skills they consider important to journalism:

  • Those at organizations with fact-checking features are more inclined to think data visualization is “very” important: 24 percent vs. 18 percent.
  • Respondents from those organizations also tend to believe investigative reporting skills are “very” important: 59 percent vs. 47 percent.
  • And they believe “leadership and team management” is a “very” important journalism skill: 48 percent vs. 39 percent.
  • There are similar differences in ranking knowledge of media law as “very” important (40 percent vs. 34 percent) and to consider subject-matter expertise as vital (58 percent vs. 52 percent).

Data from the full survey can be viewed here, where you can also download a PDF of the initial report. Read more about the survey’s methodology here.

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