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The Future of Fact-Checking: Moving ahead in political accountability journalism

Overview

These should be heady days for fact-checkers.

In an industry that has not otherwise been enjoying robust growth, the number of media outlets focused on fact-checking and political accountability reporting has grown rapidly. Bolstered by new partnerships and technology, demonstrably more fact-checking took place during the 2016 election than in previous elections. Media organizations including NPR and the Washington Post report record-breaking readership of their fact-checking work.

“This is an incredibly important time to be a journalist,” said Yanick Rice Lamb, a former journalist and now a journalism professor at Howard University. “Never has the watchdog role been more important.”

Fact-checking also has entered into the broader public consciousness, as a lightning rod for politicians, a source of comedy, and even donations. PolitiFact, for instance, exceeding its $100,000 annual goal for memberships in less than a month.

This is an incredibly important time to be a journalist. Never has the watchdog role been more important.

At the same time, however, fact-checking faces enormous challenges. The election season saw a proliferation of fast-spreading misinformation concocted to bolster or attack candidates, and “fake news” designed for profit.

The Trump administration continues to cast doubts on the credibility of journalists and accountability reporting, confounding the conversation with “alternative facts” and fueling social media disdain for fact-checking. And the difficulty of communicating with partisan and sometimes distrustful audiences continues to challenge fact-checkers well past Election Day.

To explore such challenges, the American Press Institute, the Poynter Institute and Duke University Reporters’ Lab hosted a recent summit at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The invitation-only event included more than 70 participants, including fact-checkers and other journalists, researchers, educators, librarians, and representatives from foundations and technology companies.

While acknowledging the areas in which fact-checking has been a success, the discussion primarily centered on how to reach a wider audience: exploring alternative formats, considering new research, and focusing on understanding of issues rather than rating political statements on their veracity.

This report encapsulates those discussions, and explores how the enterprise of fact-checking can advance and adapt. It reflects the broad consensus among practitioners that it’s time to formulate “fact-checking 2.0,” including new approaches to serve an audience that is fracturing, morphing and buffeted by bad information.

In conjunction with these efforts, the American Press Institute is supporting research that examines aspects of accountability journalism and its effectiveness. Results will be released in mid-2017. The general topics are:

  • How people respond when a fact check disproves their beliefs about a controversial issue
  • How and why people choose to read fact-checking/accountability articles
  • How sources used in fact-checking articles affect the impact of fact-checking articles.

The group of experts at the summit from both inside and outside the media industry generated innovative ideas to improve the practice and impact of accountability journalism. These are included in the final chapter of this report, and include technological solutions for speed and accuracy; design solutions for transparency; ideas to increase audience reach and impact, especially among resistant consumers; and enlisting community allies and partners to help promote and improve the accountability work of media organizations.

We are continuing to pursue many of these ideas and will examine research results to help guide us to efficient, effective solutions. We welcome ideas, assistance and questions.

  • An issue is an “an important topic or problem for debate or discussion” (e.g., energy independence, job creation). A claim is “an assertion of the truth of something, typically one that is disputed or in doubt” (e.g., coal energy can be clean, the monthly jobs report is rigged). You can’t really fact-check an issue until it becomes… a claim.

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