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September 05 2012

13:43

Why Fact-Checking Has Taken Root in This Year's Election

We are all fact-checkers now.

For years, Americans' political press has been stuck in a fact-free model of neutrality, often covering even the most obvious lies as "one side" of a dispute. From Swift Boats and global warming to Iraq's nonexistent WMDs, this coverage shrouds even rudimentary empirical claims in a fog of truthiness. But that may be changing.

As this year's presidential campaign enters the homestretch after Labor Day, a new, aggressive model of fact-checking appears to be taking root. It is fast, aggressive and sometimes even outraged about falsehoods on the campaign trail.

Take Paul Ryan's convention address last week. Ryan offered several misleading statements and a few obvious lies -- falsehoods that he had to know were false -- although there's nothing new about politicians lying. Just look at Ryan's fellow running mates: Sarah Palin lied about the Bridge to Nowhere in her convention address, for example, while during a nationally televised debate, Dick Cheney falsely said he had never met John Edwards, and Edwards falsely charged that the Bush administration lobbied to cut combat pay. They faced mild corrections and very little collateral damage for those high-profile statements.

This time, however, reporters did not let Ryan off the hook by noncommittally airing criticism ("opponents disagreed with his claims"), or reducing corrections to one of those stand-alone sidebars evaluating distortions ("three Pinocchios for the deficit commission history"). Instead, several authoritative accounts of Ryan's address decided that his falsehoods were a key part of the news Ryan made, as these headlines show:

washpostryanspeech.png

Mr. Ryan's Misleading Speech (Washington Post)
Deficit Vow Lacks Specifics (A.P.)

Paul Ryan Address: Convention Speech Built On Demonstrably Misleading Assertions (Huffington Post)

Opinionated commenters were even harsher, focusing more on factual failure than ideological differences. Taken together, the overwhelming verdict on Ryan's speech was that he should not be believed. (By one online measurement, on the day after the speech, the most widely cited convention articles led with the falsehoods.)

The Ryan-Romney campaign's misleading welfare ads have drawn similar media condemnation. Ditto for the false claims that Obama raised taxes on middle-class Americans and, more darkly, the recurring, false suggestion that he was born abroad.

This newfound vigor for reporting facts over false equivalency -- the very "truth vigilantism" that a New York Times public editor once presented as an optional challenge for today's press -- looks like a mainstay on the campaign trail.

Yet after years of complaints from media critics and ridicule from the media's unofficial ombudsmen on Comedy Central, why is this happening now? A few interlocking trends suggest the reasons are both structural -- campaigning in a digital era -- and parochial, given the strengths of the two nominees.

Fact-Checking Has Gone Viral

This is the first national race in which Twitter is fundamentally altering campaign coverage. The message-sharing platform has upended how most political reporters watch the campaign.

Newt Gingrich used to deride Washington conventional wisdom as the product of what 500 people said to each other over lunch -- nowadays, it's more like what those people retweet. The pack mentality remains, but the backchannel is more visible and more subject to pushback. For reporters, that means fact-checking is not only faster, but it draws from a wider array of sources.

Returning to Ryan's speech, for example, many of the most retweeted items from that night were not jokes or partisan attacks. They were simple messages about fact-checking. "Factory mentioned by Paul Ryan actually announced it's closing before Obama took office," declared a typical example from the Washington Post.

When that kind of information goes viral, it instantly stokes press and public attention on the politician's fibs, and crowdsources part of a reporter's homework. Separating exaggeration from dissembling takes time, but reporters can draw on credible Twitter sources for a head start. That makes it easier to instantly report the "news" of the candidate's statements and a factual counternarrative.

The Press Oligopoly is Ending

While bloggers have been nipping at reporters for several campaign cycles, they have now fully arrived as credentialed colleagues. Some of today's most successful campaign "bloggers," like Nate Silver, promoted to the New York Times from the open-source user diaries of Daily Kos, or Ezra Klein, who joined the Washington Post after an impressive stint blogging for the American Prospect, specialize in providing quantifiable facts at breakneck speed. The interpretative emphasis is on evidence over opinion: Charts rule and canards are usually debunked _ before_ the regurgitation that politicians take for granted. It's a different orientation than conventional campaign coverage, which often celebrates the horse race and prizes direct access to the principals, no matter what they are saying. And as empiricist blogging is integrated into the elite press, it provides credentialed competition that can both impact and supplant the conventional model.

"The fact-checking franchise has grown from a handful of specialists," Jay Rosen, an NYU journalism professor, told MediaShift via email, "to something that every full-service news operation should do." The contribution from sites and bloggers devoted to fact-checking, he said, "probably accounts for some of the intensity" of online fact-checking this cycle.

But still, you can't fact-check much unless the facts are routinely in danger.

Romney, Obama and the Truth War

Finally, beyond any structural shifts, this year's campaign also features two nominees with message strategies that have now been specifically honed to address today's fact-checkers.

Romney is icing them out while Obama is cultivating them.

Faced with nearly unanimous rebukes for its welfare attack, the Romney campaign doubled down, making several more ads with the same claim. Then, its pollster flatly told the press that the campaign would not have its strategy "dictated by fact checkers." That gambit -- call it honesty about dishonesty or "cynical postmodernism" -- may have taunted some reporters into even more assertive truth-squading. According to one source familiar with the White House's thinking, Team Romney's strategic mistake was not the lying, but offending the press.

For its part, the Obama campaign is now invested in veracity as a core attack. The president has plenty of impact over what issues are newsworthy, and his campaign is arguing that spin, lies and exaggerations show that the Romney-Ryan ticket can't be trusted. As Buzzfeed's Ben Smith recently argued, this "pants on fire politics" aims to bend the premium on accuracy into a political advantage. Smith said reporters should be wary of attempts to referee larger policy disagreements as if they were mere factual disputes. That's not going to be easy.

Ari Melber is an attorney, correspondent for The Nation magazine, and contributing columnist to Politico. During the 2008 presidential election, Melber traveled with the Obama Campaign on special assignment for The Washington Independent. In 2010, he authored a 74-page special report for techPresident analyzing the first year of Organizing for America, the 13-million person network that grew out of the 2008 presidential campaign, which Northwestern political scientist Daniel Galvin called "the most comprehensive and insightful account of Obama's 'Organizing for America' to date." Melber has contributed chapters to the books "America Now," (St. Martins, 2009) and "At Issue: Affirmative Action," (Cengage, 2009), and has been a featured speaker at Harvard, Oxford, Yale, Columbia and NYU, among other institutions. Melber has also served as a Legislative Aide in the U.S. Senate and as a national staff member of the 2004 John Kerry Presidential Campaign. He received a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and a J.D. from Cornell Law School, where he was an editor of the Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy. (Contact via www.arimelber.com).

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April 27 2012

21:30

Middle East coverage is full of lies

Foreign Policy :: It has not been a banner week for media coverage of the Arab world. Blame it on journalists unfamiliar with their subject matter, the demands of an ever-quicker news cycle, or simply salacious stories that were "too good to check" -- a number of stories that have made it into major media outlets recently are simply not true, or omit essential details of the tale.

HT: Mark Little, Storyful here:

Middle East Coverage is Full of Lies - Foreign Policy blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/04/…

— mark little (@marklittlenews) April 27, 2012

Continue to read DAvid Kenner, blog.foreignpolicy.com

April 17 2012

05:46

U.S. retail sales in March rose 0.8%. Really? Financial reporting of the worst sort.

... writes Charles Biderman. Read now why.

Forbes :: The financial press reported that 0.8% sales increase as gospel showing once again how totally ignorant the media can be when it comes to reporting economic numbers put out by the U.S. government. The AP headline was that U.S. retail sales in March rose 0.8%, helped by job gains. The Wall Street Journal online site reported not only that U.S. retail sales rose 0.8% in March, but also that Americans spent more on autos. Really? This is reporting of the worst sort. Why?

[Charles Biderman:] Ignorance is bliss, particularly when it comes to U.S. government economic data.

Why - Continue to read Charles Biderman, www.forbes.com

January 16 2012

14:28

Comment call: Objectivity and impartiality – a newsroom policy for student projects

I’ve been updating a newsroom policy guide for a project some of my students will be working on, with a particular section on objectivity and impartiality. As this has coincided with the debate on fact-checking stirred by the New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane, I thought I would reproduce the guidelines here, and invite comments on whether you think it hits the right note:

Objectivity and impartiality: newsroom policy

Objectivity is a method, not an element of style. In other words:

  • Do not write stories that give equal weight to each ‘side’ of an argument if the evidence behind each side of the argument is not equal. Doing so misrepresents the balance of opinions or facts. Your obligation is to those facts, not to the different camps whose claims may be false.
  • Do not simply report the assertions of different camps. As a journalist your responsibility is to check those assertions. If someone misrepresents the facts, do not simply say someone else disagrees, make a statement along the lines of “However, the actual wording of the report…” or “The official statistics do not support her argument” or “Research into X contradict this.” And of course, link to that evidence and keep a copy for yourself (which is where transparency comes in).

Lazy reporting of assertions without evidence is called the ‘View From Nowhere’ – you can read Jay Rosen’s Q&A or the Wikipedia entry, which includes this useful explanation:

“A journalist who strives for objectivity may fail to exclude popular and/or widespread untrue claims and beliefs from the set of true facts. A journalist who has done this has taken The View From Nowhere. This harms the audience by allowing them to draw conclusions from a set of data that includes untrue possiblities. It can create confusion where none would otherwise exist.”

Impartiality is dependent on objectivity. It is not (as subjects of your stories may argue) giving equal coverage to all sides, but rather promising to tell the story based on objective evidence rather than based on your own bias or prejudice. All journalists will have opinions and preconceived ideas of what a story might be, but an impartial journalist is prepared to change those opinions, and change the angle of the story. In the process they might challenge strongly-held biases of the society they report on – but that’s your job.

The concept of objectivity comes from the sciences, and this provides a useful guideline: scientists don’t sit between two camps and repeat assertions without evaluating them. They identify a claim (hypothesis) and gather the evidence behind it – both primary and secondary.

Claims may, however, already be in the public domain and attracting a lot of attention and support. In those situations reporting should be open about the information the journalist does not have. For example:

  • “His office, however, were unable to direct us to the evidence quoted”, or
  • “As the report is yet to be published, it is not possible to evaluate the accuracy of these claims”, or
  • “When pushed, X could not provide any documentation to back up her claims”.

Thoughts?

December 29 2011

10:32

Vadim Lavrusik: Curation and amplification will become much more sophisticated in 2012

Niemanlab :: For the last year, much of the focus has been on curating content from the social web and effectively contextualizing disparate pieces of information to form singular stories. This has been especially notable during breaking news events, with citizens who are participating in or observing those events contributing content about them through social media. In 2012, there will be even more emphasis not only on curating that content, but also on amplifying it through increasingly effective distribution mechanisms.

[Vadim Lavrusik:] In fact, it has made the work of journalists even more important, as there is much more verification and “making sense” of that content that needs to be done.

Continue to read Vadim Lavrusik, www.niemanlab.org

10:22

On the rise of fact checking, the landscape of a movement

Ethan Zuckerman :: Is fact checking a specialized genre of news practice? Or should every reporter fact check? Brooke Gladstone has argued that the only way to check the spread of lies in the media is to fact check incessantly, in each paragraph they publish. Is it plausible to produce journalism in this way? Should we accept a system in which one article tells us what politicians said in a debate, and another, separate article that tells us which of those statements were true? How big is the fact checking space?

The current state of a movement.

Continue to read Ethan Zuckerman, www.ethanzuckerman.com

Highly recommended overview - continue to read Craig Silverman, www.poynter.org

June 25 2011

05:05

Tools & techniques to rebuild trust in newsrooms again

PBS :: The journalism industry ships lemons every day. Our newsrooms have a massive quality control problem. According to the best count, more than half of stories contain mistakes -- and only 3 percent of those errors are ever fixed. Errors small and large litter the mediascape, and each uncorrected one undermines public trust in news organizations. In Pew's last survey in September 2009, only 29 percent of Americans believed that the press "get the facts right." What to do?

Scott Rosenberg: "Yet the tools and techniques to fix this problem are known and simple."

Continue to read Scott Rosenberg, www.pbs.org

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