The Facts About Fact-Checking

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We don’t fact-check because we love facts. We fact-check because we hate liars.

Brides magazine has a fact-checker. She does things like verify the cost of honeymoons and makes sure that Vera Wang did, in fact, design that dress, and compares the captions on winter flower bouquet slideshows with pictures in botany reference books. It would be terrible to mistake a eucalyptus pod for a mere pussy willow.

Many American magazines, from trashy celebrity weeklies to highbrow general-interest journals, have fact-checkers of some sort. I worked as one in 2008, when, with three other Harper‘s interns, I fact-checked the magazine’s Index from beginning to end. Being the primary speaker of foreign languages in the intern cubicle, I ended up doing a lot of the international checking for the magazine. Percentage of Russians who say one goal of U.S. foreign policy is “the complete destruction of Russia”: 43. Number of Iraqi stray dogs that Operation Baghdad Pups has helped emigrate to the United States since 2003: 66.

I quickly learned that fact-checking is a predominantly American phenomenon. The French don’t do much of it, most Russian papers certainly don’t either, and even the Swiss–possibly the most exacting and precise people on the planet–do not make use of fact-checkers with quite the same fervor as Americans do. Yet their presses keep rolling, and their readers keep reading, and their brides still buy roses, if by another name. People even trust the press in Switzerland much more than they do in the U.S.: a Reader’s Digest poll found 46 percent of Swiss people said they had “high” or “fairly high” confidence in the press in 2010. That same year, Americans with “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of faith in the media made up only 25 percent of those surveyed by Gallup.

What Is a Fact-Checker?

While fact-checking, I found that I spent nearly as much time explaining to people abroad what the hell a fact-checker is as finding the facts themselves. It was frequently assumed that my motive, qua checker, was not accuracy but malice–that I was out to get someone or to prove something wrong. The exchanges that took place between me and my sources sounded a lot like a description in Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon, where Gopnik recounts a politician asking him if a fact-checker is like a “theory checker”–that is, if the young woman sitting in her Times Square cubicle would be grilling him for intellectual consistency. “That there might really be facts worth checking is an obvious and annoying absurdity: it would be naive to think otherwise,” Gopnik writes.

The people Gopnik cites might sound silly, but they were onto something. A new culture of fact-checking is emerging in the U.S.–one that’s much more aggressive than the fact-checking of the past. Enabled by online information sharing and encouraged by a polarized political discourse, facts are being wielded like weapons. We don’t fact-check because we love facts. We fact-check because we hate liars. Why? For starters, there’s the search for truth. This isn’t as squishy and idealistic as it sounds. I know many writers who were profoundly moved by the act of fact-checking, and I, too, found it to be a revelatory experience. Still, it would be absurd to claim that the abundance of fact-checking in the U.S. can be explained because Americans as a people value accuracy more than the Japanese or the French. It would also be very hard to verify.

“Vigilante” Fact-Checking

There is an under-explored financial reason for fact-checkers. Published errors not only look bad, but under certain circumstances, they can lead to lawsuits, which are very expensive indeed. I recently spoke to a media lawyer who told me The National Enquirer employs its law firm to verify information. If they’re willing to spend that kind of money to carry out tasks more commonly relegated to interns and philosophy majors, consider the size of the potential litigation.

Then there’s a third reason: politics. Increasingly, for American readers, there are no mistakes, only covert ideologies. And out of necessity, much of the media has bought into this mentality wholesale, serving up laborious platters of “fair and balanced” to consumers who lack the will to engage in any critical analysis of the information they are fed. Networks and some papers compete with one another on the terrain of “neutrality,” which is great in theory, but when taken too far, produces a reticent and a watered-down story more concerned with showing both sides than getting to the heart of the matter. And it is because the U.S. media are so obsessed with their own so-called objectivity that predatory checking has dominated the conversation. Checking is no longer just a link in the editorial sausage machine; it is an integral part of the political discourse and a fixture in American popular culture. An army of professional and citizen fact-checkers have taken the process out of the newsroom and into the open.

This new wave of checkers–the “vigilantes”–are different from the editors and aspiring writers at newspapers and magazines who silently bulletproof the stories their magazines publish. The vigilantes work with a very different goal. They’re guerrillas; they live to pounce, to catch their enemies at their most vulnerable moments, and to parade their heads around on a stick, declaring smugly: untruth!

The patron saint of this new fact-checking scene is Craig Silverman, who runs a blog-turned-book, Regret the Error, and has a column on Poynter. Silverman calls fact-checking the “new American pastime” and writes with real authority about the importance of accuracy in journalism and the effect it has on public information. The Annenberg Center, the Washington Post, and ABC have their own fact checking blogs. And then there’s PolitiFact and its notorious Truth-O-Meter, a digital graphic used as though truth can be measured with the same instrument you stick into a chicken to make sure it’s reliably free of salmonella. Late last year, PolitiFact was embroiled in a micro-scandal involving its “lie of the year.” The lie in question was a statement made by members of the Democratic Party that “Republicans voted to end Medicare.” This statement, said PolitiFact, was a complete exaggeration: Republicans merely wished to privatize the program.

PolitiFact did nothing to clarify the problem. In fact, it made things worse. Even after the site–a Pulitzer Prize winner!–decided that Democrats had been lying egregiously to the public for an entire year, people still disagreed, largely across ideological lines. As a result, PolitiFact began to be regarded as siding with Republicans.

Even if you value truth, it’s easy to be discouraged by reading these blogs. Their motive is a sound one–but to what end? If this sort of predatory fact-checking were actually effective for anything but sport, a great number of politicians would be out of business by now. This brandishing of “facts” is a gateway to laziness. Why produce thoughtful and coherent statements when you can just wield truth-bytes like weapons?

Using Facts as Weapons

Until recently, the defensive/traditional and offensive/vigilante sorts of fact-checking rarely ventured onto one another’s turf. But in the past few months, we’ve seen a conflation of behind-the-scenes bulletproofing and dirty-laundry exhibitionism that speaks to a greater cultural shift.

In March 2012, author Mike Daisey performed a theatrical monologue about his experience at Apple’s Foxconn plant in China, and broadcast it on This American Life. During the monologue, Daisey described meeting underage workers, poisoned workers, maimed workers, and recounted a number of other sensational scenes. People believed his monologue to be true, mostly because it was presented as such, and by that time, the New York Times and other investigations had confirmed that many of these things were happening at some time or another. The problem was that Daisey hadn’t seen them himself. He was creating a composite to better draw attention to his cause.

Drama ensued. TAL dedicated an entire episode to essentially shaming him. TAL could have reacted differently–making a straightforward statement about the inaccuracy of Daisey’s report, issuing a press release, even banning him from the premises–but instead, TAL theatrically burned Daisey at stake, as though to say: Don’t hate the lie–hate the liar.

Many commentators have said that it’s impossible to fact check someone who’s determined enough to fabricate news in the first place, and they’re probably right. The problem with retroactive naming and shaming is that it doesn’t focus on the facts themselves: it gives undue attention to liars (or, sometimes, mistaken reporters), confirming all our cynicisms about the news while morally empowering whoever uncovered the error. In the end, we don’t learn about the facts. We learn about the people who don’t care about the facts. Facts become weapons, but the story rarely deepens. And worst of all, it won’t make the Mike Daiseys of the world disappear. We’ll just know who they are, where they went, and what they lied about. 

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian is a writer and translator based in Brooklyn. Excerpted from The New Inquiry (March 28, 2012), a website for discussion that aspires to enrich cultural and public life by putting all available resources–both digital and material–toward the promotion and exploration of ideas.

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