Co-authored by Lucas Graves.
A few hours before the second 2016 presidential debate, the Washington Post’s fact-checker Glenn Kessler published a guide to allegations of sexual misconduct that he thought Donald Trump might make against Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton. The guide covered confirmed consensual affairs and alleged unwanted sexual encounters women had with Bill Clinton. Kessler also examined claims about the ways Hillary Clinton responded to some of the allegations against her husband.
That a major newspaper was engaging in anticipatory fact-checking – hours before a hotly anticipated debate and hours after the same newspaper broke the story that Donald Trump had been having an exceptionally lewd conversation on a hot microphone with Access Hollywood’s Billy Bush in 2005 in which he “bragged in vulgar terms about kissing, groping and trying to have sex with women” – barely registers as noteworthy. During the debate itself, Hillary Clinton referred to “the fact-checkers” on multiple occasions, directing debate watchers to check out her own website’s fact-checks of Donald Trump. Indeed, PolitiFact’s debate tweets were retweeted over 2,000 times.
Fact-checking is moving from a revolution in political journalism to an institutionalized part of it. Less than a decade after the Tampa Bay Times’ PolitiFact broadened fact-checking’s reach, fact-checks of national political officials and commentators is a reliable element of the international media ecology.
How is fact-checking a distinct form of journalism? How do fact-checkers do their work? Can fact-checks affect what people believe to be true? Do they change how traditional journalists approach their reporting?
In Deciding What’s True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism, one of us, Lucas Graves, argues that fact-checking is a major culture shift in journalism because it moves beyond the bounds of traditional “he said/she said” reporting to hold politicians and other public political actors accountable for the accuracy of the claims they make.
Implications of Checking
Despite the willingness of fact-checkers to take the side of the verifiable truth in political debates, false claims often lead to misperceptions among the public that are very difficult to correct. Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler concluded that motivated reasoning and limits of human memory and cognitive ability can prevent people from using the results of fact-checks to update their beliefs about what is true. However, Nyhan and Reifler found, in another study, that being exposed to fact-checks has a positive, lingering effect on people’s ability to recall accurate facts over time. This occurred across party lines and regardless of whether the facts were “good news” or “bad news” for the partisan individuals reading the fact-checks.
Fact-checks affect those making political claims, as well. Nyhan and Reifler found that lawmakers made cognizant of the threat the fact-checks could do to their reputations are less likely to have to endure a negative fact-check than those who were not warned of the potential consequences of getting caught making questionable claims.
Fact-checkers are certainly writing for the public, but other journalists are an important part of the audience as well. Graves argues that fact-checking matters most when journalists go beyond reporting a candidate’s claim by checking to see if the claim has been fact-checked. If the claim is false, the reporter has a powerful, consequential choice: challenge the candidate about the merits of the claim or decline to report the claim in the first place.
When to check
Despite fact-checking’s growing popularity, journalists are not likely to engage in fact-checks simply to earn more clicks from readers. Using a field experiment on working journalists, Graves, Nyhan, and Reifler found that journalists are more likely to engage in fact-checking when they are “reminded that fact-checking is a prestigious activity that upholds the ideals of their profession” rather than just doing what is becoming popular.
We wanted to see if we could scale the international fact-checking movement down to a college course that gave student journalists the opportunity to complete fact-checks about their local political leaders. With the support of a Wisconsin Idea grant, we have developed a new fact-checking course and website, The Observatory, that launches Oct. 24. Sixteen journalism majors are assigned to cover claims made by Wisconsin candidates for office, candidates in competitive U.S. Senate races and the presidential contest. Together with the students in the course and our partners at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism who are providing crucial editorial and web-support for our endeavor, we have created our own fact-checking truth scale (the “Veritas Scale” as veritas is Latin for truth) and developed standards to rate claims.
Once the election ends, The Observatory’s classroom work will shift to another growing movement in journalism: explanatory reporting done in the spirit of Vox and “The Upshot” at the New York Times. Later this week, we will describe how we are teaching this course, launching the website and working to find ways to keep the fact-checking and explanatory reporting going beyond this year’s election cycle.
Michael W. Wagner is Associate Professor and Louis A. Maier Faculty Development Fellow in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research, teaching and service are centered on questions relating to how elements of the information environment—e.g., the way politicians frame issues and the level of polarization in Congress—interact with individual-level factors to affect people’s political preferences, partisanship, and behaviors. He blogs at prowag.me and tweets @prowag.
Lucas Graves is an Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. His book Deciding What’s True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism is just out from Columbia University Press. His work has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Wired, the New York Times, and various academic journals. He tweets @gravesmatter.