Papers are often fact checked.(Photo: Madeline Berry / Hillsdale Col­legian)

Your mother may have told you that a half-truth is a lie, but she wasn’t a pro­fes­sional fact checker. At the Wash­ington Post, fact checkers slap state­ments with up to four Pinoc­chios, and fact-checking site Poli­tiFact has a “Truth-O-Meter” with six shades of true and false — including, heaven forbid, “Pants on Fire.”

Fact checkers like these are getting a high-profile boost: Two weeks ago, Google announced a part­nership with the Poynter Institute’s Inter­na­tional Fact-Checking Network in order to increase the number of fact checkers, expand fact checkers’ presence inter­na­tionally, and provide fact-checking tools to IFCN sig­na­tories.

Fact checking has cropped up in dozens of sites and columns in recent years, claiming to root out fake news and politi­cians’ false state­ments. In them­selves, these are noble endeavors. But pro­moting fact checking as a special branch of jour­nalism is the wrong way to deal with these problems.

Though touting them­selves as neutral arbiters of truth, fact-checking sites aren’t bas­tions of objective truth. Bias appears in deciding whom to fact check, what state­ments to fact check, and what sources to use in eval­u­ation — and readers, rec­og­nizing this, are skep­tical. A 2016 poll by Ras­mussen Reports found that 62 percent of voters dis­trust media fact checking can­di­dates’ state­ments. Among Trump sup­porters, dis­trust sky­rocketed to 88 percent.

In part, this is because some fact checkers haven’t skirted the bias of regular media. A 2013 George Mason Uni­versity study found, for example, that Poli­tiFact declared 54 percent of Democrat state­ments to be true but only 18 percent of Repub­lican claims.

Maybe Repub­licans lie more, but that sta­tistic “probably has more to do with how the state­ments were picked and the sub­jective bias of the fact checker involved than any­thing remotely empirical,” wrote Peter Roff for U.S. News & World Report.

But media con­sumers, on both ends of the political spectrum, per­petuate the problem. Research has found that con­fir­mation bias — the ten­dency to believe reports that confirm beliefs, no matter how true the reports are — is exac­er­bated when it comes to pol­itics.

During the 2004 pres­i­dential election, an Emory Uni­versity neu­ro­logical study of a group of Repub­licans and Democrats found that par­tic­i­pants of both parties were far more critical of state­ments made by the other party’s can­didate than those made by their favored politician. And they used the parts of their brains asso­ciated with emotion, not reason, as they judged the claims.

Fact-checking sites, then, are unlikely to change people’s minds on matters of fact.

But fact checkers don’t just deal with matters of fact.

“Calling it ‘fact checking’ is meant to convey an extra degree of objective authority, but ‘fact check’ jour­nalists do not limit them­selves to ques­tions of ver­i­fiable objective fact,” writes columnist James Taranto for the Wall Street Journal. “Some­times their ‘rulings’ are mere opinions on matters about which they do not know the facts, or that are not factual ques­tions at all.”

As an egre­gious example, Taranto points out PolitiFact’s response to Obama’s claim that, under the Affordable Care Act, Amer­icans who like their insurance plans can keep them.

In 2008, Taranto notes, Poli­tiFact declared this statement “true” on the basis of Obama’s own claims about the program. In 2009 and 2012, as people started losing their plans, the fact checker called it “Half True.” In 2013, Poli­tiFact bashed the statement as its “Lie of the Year.”

What else are fact checkers telling us today that, five years from now, will be debunked?

Sta­tistics — gen­erally deemed “facts” because they’re numbers — aren’t clear cut, either.

At a meeting last month with res­i­dents in Charleston, West Vir­ginia, the Wash­ington Post reported, Poli­tiFact rep­re­sen­ta­tives demon­strated their methods by looking at a claim from Bernie Sanders that less than 10 percent of the defense budget goes into fighting inter­na­tional ter­rorism.

Poli­tiFact rep­re­sen­ta­tives explained how they evaluate the statement, pre­senting expert opinions and budget analyses that cast doubt on the claim. But in the end, the audience had mixed con­clu­sions about the claim’s truth­fulness, some calling it “false,” some “mostly false.”

“See, this fact-checking thing, it isn’t so easy, is it?” the Post reporter con­cluded.

“Facts” are ambiguous, and fact checkers’ methods allude to that. Between shades of falsehood — or Pinoc­chios — the reporter’s arbi­trariness inevitably slips in. One Wash­ington Post reporter even wrote about “wavering” between deliv­ering two or three Pinoc­chios to a claim by EPA Admin­is­trator Scott Pruitt.

Sud­denly, fact checking looks just like regular jour­nalism: at best, an attempt at objec­tivity, delivered from the reporter’s non-objective point of view.

But by dubbing itself “fact checking” and splashing the name across special web pages, the practice removes itself from jour­nalism. Fact checking signals the end of a con­ver­sation: Here are the facts, case closed. True jour­nalism advances dis­course — not by claiming to have indis­putable facts, but by pointing out nuances and con­tributing other view­points and infor­mation. It rec­og­nizes that political debates are chock-full of phi­losophy and expe­ri­ences that can’t be whittled down to numbers but can still be true or false. (Truth, after all, runs deeper than facts.)

Good jour­nalists have always been fact checkers of their own work. They should con­tinue to be so, and, through good research and reporting, they can evaluate claims made by others, too. But they shouldn’t call it fact checking and rel­egate it to elite corners of the media. Fact checking shouldn’t be the special forces of jour­nalism — it should be at the heart of it.

That probably won’t look so simple as a scale of four Pinoc­chios. But it will get us closer to the truth.


Nicole Ault is a junior studying eco­nomics.

  • Ellsworth_Toohey

    The irony.… a opinion piece on fact checking by a reporter who failed last week to “fact check” her reporting of census reporting stan­dards.