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.