Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

Inside the Meter

New fact-checking study looks at local officials' reactions to fact-checks

More fact-checking -- especially at the state and local level -- could make politicians think twice before they decide to stretch the truth. That’s the interesting implication of a new study that looked how state legislators reacted to fact-checking efforts.

"The Effect of Fact-checking on Elites: A field experiment on U.S. state legislators" was conducted by Brendan Nyhan, an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College and a media critic for Columbia Journalism Review, and Jason Reifler, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Exeter.

PolitiFact was not involved with the study, but Nyhan and Reifler used PolitiFact state sites to look at how officials reacted to notifications that they were being fact-checked.

The study occurred during the final months of the 2012 election, targeting approximately 1,200 state legislators in nine states where PolitiFact publishes. The authors sent letters to a third of those legislators, describing in detail how negative fact-checking ratings could hurt their reputations and prospects at the ballot box. Another third of the group were sent more generic letters, telling them the authors were conducting a study on the accuracy of their statements. The remaining third got no letters. The authors then measured how many legislators received negative ratings.

"We found that legislators who were sent reminders that they are vulnerable to fact-checking were less likely to receive a negative PolitiFact rating or have the accuracy of their statements questioned publicly than legislators who were not sent reminders," the authors wrote. "These results suggest that the electoral and reputational threat posed by fact-checking can affect the behavior of elected officials.

"In this way, fact-checking could play an important role in improving political discourse and strengthening democratic accountability."

Here at PolitiFact, our goal is inform people, not change politicians' behavior. Still, we're happy to see that our work has an impact.

We also agree with the authors' conclusion that there's a need for more fact-checking at the state and local level. We’re constantly looking for opportunities to launch PolitiFact sites in states where we don’t currently have a presence. (We invite news organizations that are interested to contact us.)

More fact-checking furthers our core mission: to hold elected officials accountable for what they say and to give voters the information they need to govern themselves in a democracy.