Anatomy of a Good Fact Check
In our unsettling age of “fake news,” it would seem that Facebook’s third-party fact-checking initiative would be a welcome development. Facebook has teamed up with six independent fact-checking organizations to identify and reduce the spread of fake news.
These six organizations, with a combined staff of around 90 people, are in effect offered as the new arbiters of what is factually true. Their balls-and-strikes calls influence social media and search engine optimization, rankings, and the capacity to share content. Participating organizations must agree to adhere to a nonpartisan code of principles devised by the respected Poynter Institute for Media Studies. The problem is that despite declarations of “transparency,” no one really knows much about the fact checkers or their methods — not even the fact checkers themselves are entirely clear.
There is an old Latin phrase, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes, which translates as “But who will guard the guardians?” The ability to wield oversight on society’s arbiters, in other words, was something recognized in ancient Rome, democracy’s cradle. This need has not diminished in two millennia. To help or hinder the stories that we share -- a form of censorship -- is an awesome power that calls for transparency and oversight. According to data from Pew Research Center, two-thirds of U.S. adults get news from social media, with 45 percent of American adults saying they read news on Facebook. That is where RealClearPolitics’ Fact Check Review enters the picture. Using our methodology, we will make public our findings on the fact checkers.
None of this means there are not plenty of instances in which the fact checkers perform their job admirably. Paul Arden, a legendary ad man, once wrote, “Do not seek praise. Seek criticism.” While we have some of the latter to dispense, we thought it would be instructive to provide examples of well-constructed fact checks from each of the outlets we are monitoring.
Holmes Lybrand, the lone fact checker at The Weekly Standard, is characteristically brief. On April 3, Lybrand wrote a piece on the claim that controversial student anti-gun activist David Hogg gave a “Nazi salute” at a rally. Lybrand provided numerous examples of Hogg’s clenched-fist gesture (as contrasted with Hitler’s open-palm salute) being used in various contexts far removed from Nazism. Lybrand rarely offers primary evidence, such as interviews. However, such evidence is unnecessary here because the provided media accounts are accompanied by pictorial evidence. It might also be worth noting that The Weekly Standard is a conservative outlet, meaning that young David Hogg is not necessarily a sympathetic figure to its readership.
Snopes deserves credit for being less prone than other fact checkers to “verify” contentious statements that are really matters of opinion instead of fact. Its pieces are typically brief, incorporate ample evidence, and often include firsthand interviews with relevant subjects. Snopes sometimes veers toward editorializing by providing context outside of the scope of the facts at hand. This piece on Planned Parenthood is an example of that practice. Historical context is often essential, however, as this March 21 piece demonstrates. It concerns the furor over President Trump’s offering of congratulations to Russian President Vladimir Putin for his electoral victory. Snopes provides substantial evidence to show that, in 2012, President Obama did the same.
The Washington Post fact-checking operation produces pieces that are extremely comprehensive, and typically contains firsthand interviews with numerous sources. Although The Post’s “Pinocchio” rating system is too subjective for some, it was certainly employed fairly in a March 27 piece concerning a claim made by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that Congress could give the president line-item veto powers. Fact checker Salvador Rizzo used a variety of historical and media evidence, as well as interviews, to prove that Mnuchin was clearly wrong; there can be no line-item veto without a constitutional amendment.
Like The Post, the New York Times fact-checking pieces often focus on a collection of claims made during a single speech or event, such as those uttered by the president during a meeting with lawmakers, or during his speech at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference. The Times groups conventionally reported pieces among its fact checks when such pieces address specific claims made by political figures. One such piece, by reporter Jesse McKinley, is an example of a thorough and fair fact check. McKinley examined a claim by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo that his name was not mentioned in the bribery trial of a former associate. McKinley debunked this claim, provided specific evidence, while allowing Cuomo’s staff to have their say.
FactCheck.org styles itself as a “‘consumer advocate’ for voters.” As such, this site focuses on expressly political claims. A March 13 fact check by Angelo Fichera deserves recognition for adept handling of a questionable claim. President Trump did not sign an executive order allowing veterans to get medical bills paid at non-VA hospitals, as a viral Facebook post claimed. Yet Fichera found that Trump did continue a program that allows some veterans to seek outside care. Writing clearly and dispassionately, Fichera provided the evidence to set straight an untruth, and made the reader aware of a pertinent truth that provides needed context.
PolitiFact is the most venerable of the fact checkers, with the Pulitzer Prize to prove it. Its editors and reporters rate claims using the “Truth-O-Meter” scale, which ranges from “true” to “pants on fire.” Even the founder of PolitiFact admitted the subjectivity of this method, and we will be on the lookout for abuses of this theatrical device. But PolitiFact is at its best when debunking hoax websites and spurious conspiracy theories. In this April 3 example, PolitiFact made quick work of a conspiracy buff’s claim that the March for Our Lives rally was scheduled prior to the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Fla. Even though the claim is obvious nonsense, PolitiFact took its job seriously, providing both first- and secondhand evidence.
Each of these fact checks comes from a different outlet, is written in a different style, and handles a different type of claim. They have much in common, though. All of the pieces avoid rating subjective claims, instead focusing on discernible truths and falsehoods. They provide adequate evidence to evaluate the claims, as well as sourcing for the reading public. In the old parlance of journalism from another era, these fact checks didn’t merely “tell” the reader, they also “showed” the reader.