Saturday, December 20th, 2014

The value of fact-checking in the 2012 campaign

We've published more than 7,000 Truth-O-Meter rulings.
We've published more than 7,000 Truth-O-Meter rulings.

I am a fan of David Carr, the media writer at the New York Times, but he really misfired with his blog post "A Last Fact-Check: It Didn't Work."

Carr's point is that the tremendous amount of fact-checking of the 2012 campaign was worthless because it didn't stop the candidates from lying. "Both candidates’ campaigns laid out a number of whoppers, got clobbered for doing so, and then kept right on saying them," he writes.

We've heard this argument before.

In 2008, critics questioned the value of fact-checking because Sarah Palin persisted with claims about stopping the infamous "bridge to nowhere" even though fact-checkers said her claim was largely incorrect. And we heard it again last summer after Mitt Romney's pollster was quoted as saying, "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers." That prompted harrumphing from media critics and liberal writers who were shocked -- shocked! -- that the Romney campaign would not immediately cease and desist with its falsehoods when the fact-checkers declared something was wrong.

But this is a silly measurement of our work. Our mission is to inform readers, not change the behavior of politicians. And it's ridiculous to think that our new form of accountability journalism would suddenly rewrite the traditions of American politics and end decades of lying by candidates and elected officials.

Besides, politicians aren't our audience. Voters are. A better measurement of our work is to ask if they were better armed with the truth so they could make smarter judgments about the candidates.

They were. As Carr notes, there is strong demand for fact-checking. In fact, traffic to our website has gone through the roof, topping 1 million page views on some days. Voters are hungry for fact-checking.

NPR found huge demand when it asked listeners what types of political coverage they wanted this fall. Their No. 1 choice? Fact-checking.

To argue that fact-checking is a failure because politicians keep lying is like saying that investigative reporting is worthless because politicians are still corrupt. Yes, they are still corrupt. But we do investigative reporting and fact-checking to give people the information they need to make wise choices.

Carr is correct that the 2012 campaign was the most fact-checked in history. PolitiFact now has 36 reporters and editors in 11 states. We produced more than 800 fact-checks on the presidential campaign, plus hundreds more on candidates for the U.S. House, the Senate and countless other races. We fact-checked dozens of TV ads, mailings, Facebook posts and Twitter messages.

We were joined by other full-time fact-checkers from FactCheck.org and the Washington Post and teams of reporters from the Associated Press, the New York Times, CNN and ABC that were mobilized to fact-check the political conventions and the debates.

It will take time to sort out the factors behind the election results, but I think we'll find that voters were empowered by the abundance of fact-checking and that it probably hindered some politicians from making false attacks. Connie Schultz, the wife of U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, wrote that our fact-checking had an impact because it is "making some campaigns more honest and some politicians better in their jobs." She added, "If you care about being honest with voters, you’re going to be more vigilant with the truth and recalibrate what you say after PolitiFact takes you to task."

Yet Carr doesn't explore this thread at all. He focuses only on the fact that the campaigns persisted with some claims. Contrary to Carr's headline, fact-checking DID work. We reached millions of voters and gave them valuable information.

The fact-checking movement has had some great successes. And we're just getting started.