Captain Obvious reports: Fact checking is good

If you’re a media watcher, your Twitter list/RSS feed/etc. has been overloaded in the past week with endless versions of the debate over fact checking and its value to journalism.

Sometimes it takes a comedian to cut to the truth of the matter, and Jon Stewart of the Daily Show has been railing against this since 2009, when he lampooned CNN’s “We’ll leave it there” way of dealing with controversial claims made on air.

Before the Republican National Convention last week, my view on the matter was simple. Why are we debating whether fact checking is good? Isn’t that the central essence of what we do as journalists? Finally reporters are shedding the fears of being seen as biased and showing some guts!

But the more I read about the debate, the more I realize it isn’t that simple, and there are some dangers to this trend in addition to the encouraging aspects.

Jay Rosen of NYU touched on the subject in a post with the awesome title of “Your’re not entitled to your own facts versus that’s your opinion kiss my ad,” when he mentioned heavily-debunked Mitt Romney ad accusing President Obama of removing work requirements from welfare. Short answer: Obama did no such thing. So what’s a journalist to do?

Really, the convention was the watershed moment for this, as events – like Paul Ryan’s claim that Obama’s economic policies caused a factory to close – thrust fact checkers into the mainstream consciousness. The New York Times did some play-by-play fact-check reporting, rounded up by their new public editor. Now that the Democrats are having their convention, I’m sure we’ll see more of the same.

Since then there’s been a bit of a tussle over whether all this fact-checking is a good thing. Washington Post media guy Erik Wemple has a good summation of of the debate, but really more’s been written in the past couple of days than I could possibly link to.

Ben Smith, formerly of Politco, now headlining at BuzzFeed next to kitty-cat gifs, pushed back on the whole fact checking craze a bit with this post bemoaning “Pants-on-Fire Politics.”

I’m not sure I agree with everything in Smith’s post. But I see where he’s coming from when he worries that genuine policy differences will be labeled “lies.”

The essential mission of journalists should be to provide information to our readers – in context. That’s where the industry as a whole has regressed in the past decade or so, where reporters are so wary of being labeled biased that they’ve fallen into the trap of false equivalency. But I think it’s that lack of context that Stewart was lamenting in the video I linked earlier, rather than a lack of people screaming “liars” at Republicans. Journalists do have a responsibility to put the arguments on both sides of an issue in context. And maybe that’s a better way of framing what’s needed in political journalism than “fact checking.”

There are some claims by politicians that can be debunked in black-and-white terms. Like Ryan’s factory claim, it seems pretty clear it wasn’t a fair jab at the president. For this kind of thing, I’d like to see more journalists “check the facts” in the main story, as the LA Times did with this Rick Santorum speech about the aforementioned welfare issue, rather than in a follow up story after the fact.

I’d also like to see the media get into other kinds of accountability reporting besides straight fact checks: the “True or False?” construction. I think PolitiFact’s “promise tracker” is wonderful, and it’s more about keeping tabs on elected officials than it is about bestowing the label of “truth” on a single statement.

However, some issues in politics are more complex, more open to interpretation, and it’s here that I’m with Smith: I’m leery of calling someone a “liar,” even if I think their statement is misleading. Journalists should be careful to draw a line between holding politicians accountable for their words and claiming to be the sole arbiters of truth.

Context should be the key, rather than simply calling statements “true” or “false.” What was the person trying to imply? Was the statement factually incorrect or just unfair? Because something can be unfair without being a lie. If the speaker was citing numbers, where did they come from? If they told an anecdote or cited a news story from the past, let’s dig that up and take a look at it. And so on.

The fact that political reporters are gaining the courage to fact-check politicians more, even if that makes coverage seem unbalanced, is a good thing. False equivalency is one of the worst diseases infecting the media landscape. I want to see more public figures challenged to explain themselves, and less of “leaving it there.” Hell, we’re calling the current state of things “post-truth politics,” for crying out loud.

But these fact-checkers need to make sure they don’t become part of the sideshow, that the process remains about providing readers/viewers/listeners with context to better understand the claims, boasts and attacks of political figures. And I’m not sure that little graphics of Pinocchio’s nose growing is the best way to do that.

(Edit: After I put up the post I saw this post about the media not using the word “lie,” and it being kind of a straw man argument against factchecking. Sorry, but when you use the term “pants-on-fire” you’re implying the word lie. It’s the first part of the freakin’ song.)

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About justingraeber

PR pro and media geek. Sucker for new technology, gadgets, social media, etc. Dad. Red Sox fan. Remembers way too many MST3K quotes.
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