Why fact-checking doesn’t work: Presidential address edition

Ahead of what is likely to be a fact-free monologue on our public airwaves this evening from our possibly criminal president about the “border crisis,”  a lot of folks in the public eye have responded with some form of “Well, OK, but the media should fact-check everything he says!

And sure, I get that. I’ve been working in libraries and academia for decades, and citing sources and ritualizing the “checking of facts” is squarely in my wheelhouse. Various media organizations have been increasingly on the job in this space as well – especially under our current administration. There is a lot to check, and I have nothing but respect for groups like Politifact trying to play factual Whack-A-Mole with the barrage of information and misinformation floating around the digital sphere. 

The Last Stand: Science Versus Superstition (Keppler, 1899) https://www.loc.gov/item/2012647443/

And the Enlightenment happened. Is that still a thing? Empirical facts?

Yes. But.

Even if this isn’t something you particularly study (like me and a bunch of other nerds do), it’s impossible to ignore  how untethered much of our public discourse has become from a shared consensus of truth in recent years. One can blame the Internet, the 24/7 news cycle, political polarization, the decimation of local news staffs, or probably a million other things…it’s a complex phenomenon.

But regardless of the reasons – we know ideas of “truth” are more than mutable right now. Kuhn’s paradigms shift with the winds of economic and social realities. In 2019 this shifting seems faster than ever. And it is. But the work of journalism, and the way people engage with “news” has benefitted from some outstanding scholarship going back decades that has been remarkably consistent.

That scholarship pretty clearly shows that journalists “fact-checking” a powerful individual, motivated and known to lie, in an wide-open media channel is just not going to to solve much. Why not?

1. Journalists are trained and socialized to get their news from “expert” sources

Going back to the earliest ethnographic studies of journalists, we see that methods and routines are how journalists are able to lay claim to the truth. It’s getting the sources, it’s verifying the sources, it’s having the review of a editorial desk, and not skipping any of the steps. In Gaye Tuchman’s essential scholarship of investigative reporters she found that “by stressing methods — gathering supplementary evidence, presenting conflicting truth-claims, imputing facts through familiarity with police procedures, and using quotation marks, to name some techniques analyzed earlier – newsworkers produced a full-blown version of the web of facticity.” (Tuchman, 1978, p. 160). “Facts” are built on a series of well-ordered steps involving multiple informants.

Journalists traditionally work to position authority for deciding the truth outside of themselves. Even when they position themselves as arbiters of truth, such as in cases like the Politifact site, they take particular care to be transparent about their process citing every source consulted.

Mark Fishman writing in 1980 made a similar point:

“…we need to examine the journalist’s general criterion of facticity. This fundamental principle of new fact can be stated like this: something is so because somebody says it. Newsworkers take their facts from other people’s accounts. … reporters rarely sift through physical evidence or run tests on it.” (Fishman, p. 92)

Which goes to say that creating “facticity” on their own in real time is new work (historically speaking) for journalists. With the rise of data-driven reporting (Coddington 2015), more freelance writing with less editorial support, and the general waning of access journalism, this is less true (Borges-Rey, 2017), but illustrates why many of our media organizations seem so unprepared for dealing with government authorities unleashing daily barrages of misinformation.

2. People believe news based on a variety of factors; indicators of literal truth are far down on the list.

There are heaps of studies on this, but a couple that seem relevant right now.

Research illustrated that news that shows “both sides” of disagreement of an issue will often appear more credible. Performing a ritual of debate, even to the point of incivility, communicates to readers that the “best” information has won (Thorson, 2010). Heated comments sections and Sunday morning news shows are treading well-worn paths.

And there’s just so much to process. We are overwhelmed by information as a species. In order to triage all that’s coming at us, we look for people that we trust to serve as our filters. Being prescient as only Phil Agre could, writing in 2004:

“Coming up with novel political arguments requires a lot of work. Human beings are finite and nobody has the time or knowledge to invent thought-out arguments on every issue all by themselves. ….a political infrastructure is successful if it delivers the right arguments ot the right poeple at the right time. This has always been true. What is different now is simply the scale and speed with which debates collectively unfold in a society.” (Agre 2004, p. 205)

And now. On top of the amplifications of speed and scale that have been developing over a couple decades, we now have current political leaders who are also larger-than-life, and perfectly poised to inform an overwhelmed information heuristic.

“…people use political figures as a heuristic to guide evaluation of what is true or false, yet do not necessarily insist on veracity as a prerequisite for supporting political candidates” (Swire, et al 2017. p. 1)

If your favorite politician said it, it gets very little empirical scrutiny.

So, there is, in all likelihood, a very limited outcome to reporters’ fact-checking efforts — for the speech tonight or any other similar event. As others are pointing out:


So does that mean give up on fact-checking? Or the entire notion of facts?

Not at all. But facts alone are not enough. The social worlds — the professional networks, the friendship groups, our families and faith groups, the shared training among colleagues — these are all ESSENTIAL underpinnings of what makes a fact. We cannot simply throw a fact in what we perceive as an information gap. Particularly when those information gaps are buried in social worlds riddled with structural white supremacism and committed to bad faith “debates” we need new strategies.

There is difficult work ahead.


Bibliography

Agre, P. E. (2004). The practical republic: Social skills and the progress of citizenship. In A. Feenberg & D. Barney (Eds.), Community in the Digital Age (pp. 201–223). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Borges-Rey, E. (2017). Towards an epistemology of data journalism in the devolved nations of the United Kingdom: Changes and continuities in materiality, performativity and reflexivity. Journalism, 1464884917693864. https://doi.org/10.1177/1464884917693864

Coddington, M. (2015). Clarifying journalism’s quantitative Turn. Digital Journalism, 3(3), 331–348. https://doi.org/10.1080/21670811.2014.976400

Fishman, M. (1980). Manufacturing the news. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Godler, Y., & Reich, Z. (2013). How journalists “realize” facts. Journalism Practice, 7(6), 674–689. https://doi.org/10.1080/17512786.2013.791067

Robinson, S. (2009). “If you had been with us”: Mainstream press and citizen journalists jockey for authority over the collective memory of Hurricane Katrina. New Media & Society, 11(5), 795–814. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444809105353

Thorson, K., Vraga, E., & Ekdale, B. (2010). Credibility in context: How uncivil online commentary affects news credibility. Mass Communication & Society, 13(3), 289–313. https://doi.org/10.1080/15205430903225571

Swire, B., Berinksy, A. J., Lewandowsky, S., & Ecker, U. K. (2017). Processing political misinformation: Comprehending the Trump phenomenon. Royal Society Open Science. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.160802

Tuchman, G. (1978). Making news: A study in the construction of reality. New York: Free Press.