Election campaigns always bring about truth stretching, but robust exaggeration has increasingly developed into straight-out lies, even whoppers, which, with the help of the Internet and social media, can go viral within minutes. Enter the factbusters.
Fact-checking teams within media organizations are sprouting up, as are dedicated fact-checking websites, such as FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.com.
The Washington Post and The New York Times, for example, have regular fact-checking columns, usually following a campaign debate or campaign event.
FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, describes itself as “a nonpartisan, nonprofit ‘consumer advocate’ for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.”
The group looks at a range of issues with snappy headlines like “Gunning Down the Truth in Michigan. Santorum and a pro-Romney PAC battle on the state’s airwaves,” and “Wind Spin. Puffed-up claims from the wind-power lobby. And some opponents.”
PolitiFact.com, an initiative of the Tampa Bay Times, particularly focuses on politics, both state and national. It includes sections like the Obameter, the GOP Pledge-O-Meter, plus the now widely recognized Truth-O-Meter, which rates politicians on six levels, from True to Pants on Fire, defined as “not accurate” and making “a ridiculous claim.”
PolitiFact.com also presents a Lie of the Year award, which in 2010 went to Sara Palin’s Facebook claim that seniors and the disabled would have to face a “death panel” under the Obama health care plan.
Both sites call for input from the public: FactCheck.org encourages Spin Detectors to monitor campaigns and upload suspect campaign materials, while PolitiFact.com calls on people to send in questionable campaign information for analysis.
Essential for Journalists
It is unsurprising that fact-checking grew out of a demand for truth in the media, as journalists, pushed to service hungry websites and instant news, ran out of time to thoroughly analyze what politicians and companies were saying, says Steve Coll from the New American Foundation.
“It is not a top-down initiative of media companies, universities, or not-for-profit owners. It grew out of a marketplace [among journalists] for this dedicated truth-telling and watchdogging,” he said.
Bill Adair, PolitiFact’s editor and Washington Bureau chief for the Tampa Bay Times, says the website was a product of his own guilt in covering political campaigns as a journalist.
“I felt I had been a co-conspirator and hadn’t fact-checked,” he said.
PolitiFact.com now has 35 full-time editors and reporters around the country, and has published over 5,000 Truth-O-Meters.
Adair spoke at a forum on fact-checking at the New American Foundation on Feb 28.
Super Pacs have added a new dimension to the role of fact-checking, assuming the role of campaign committees, with large amounts of cash but without the accountability, he said. While some people apologize and admit they are wrong, “you don’t see that very often for campaign ads,” he told the audience.
Adair noted corrections that had been made following fact-checks, including by President Barack Obama, who stopped repeating a detail after PolitiFact had pointed out that it was incorrect.
PolitiFact also confirmed the truth of Rick Santorum’s claim that “over 40 percent of children born in America are born out of wedlock.” The site noted that this fact was correct according to 2009 federal data.
Eye of the Beholder
While Bill Adair sees fact-checking as a tool to inform, rather than as a driver to change behavior, Jason Reifler, a political scientist at Georgia State University, is studying how fact-checking can impact behavior.
A co-author of a report on misinformation and fact-checking, Reifler says it is often difficult to convince people to recognize an “untruth,” particularly once it is out in the public domain.
People don’t like being told they are wrong and can often react badly, he said. “Correcting people can actually make people’s misperceptions worse,” Reifler told the forum. People’s self-concepts are tied up in their beliefs, and challenging those can activate defense mechanisms.
Increasing an individual’s self-esteem makes the person more receptive to realizing a misperception, while using graphic displays has been effective in communicating misinformation, he noted.
Lucas Graves, who is doing his doctoral thesis on fact-checking, says fact-checkers primarily focus on key political figures and check data or claims using verifiable sources. Their core mission is to inform people who are facing decisions at the ballot box, he said. While they use traditional media to get attention, once out, “it is immediately subject to partisan filtering.”
“Politicians and pundits talk up the fact-checks they like, and they ignore or dismiss the ones they don’t,” Graves said.
Those on the conservative side of politics favor NewsBusters, an online site dedicated to exposing bias in the liberal media, as their fact checking source, he noted. Those on the liberal side of politics favor Media Matters, an online site that declares its mission as “comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the media.”
That there is debate about some of the conclusions fact-checkers reach was highlighted in the forum.
In 2011, PolitiFact declared the claim that a health care bill proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin would destroy Medicare as the Lie of the Year. Adair told the forum that he still stood by that decision despite the controversy it had raised.
Wendell Potter, senior analyst for the Center for Public Integrity and a former health insurance executive, was one of the critics of that Lie of the Year award, telling the panel that he believed Medicare would have been fundamentally transformed under the proposal.
While the two agreed to disagree, Graves noted the difficulties non-partisan fact–checkers face in maintaining central positions on issues.
“It is a question that affects all these non-partisan fact-checker groups,” he said.