Fact-Checkers Rely Heavily on Media Reports for 'Truth'

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One of the most existential questions regarding the fact-checking landscape is just what constitutes “truth”? When fact-checkers review a claim, where do they turn to verify or refute it and what source do they consider trustworthy enough to rely upon as arbitrator? It turns out that fact-checkers rely heavily on news reports for their verdicts.

A closer look at the claims by Joe Biden that fact-checkers have reviewed in the last four months shows that 43% of the verdicts relied in some part on a news article to justify their finding. Across all evidence, 41% of PolitiFact’s sources were media, along with 11% of the Washington Post’s, but FactCheck.org relied primarily on candidate websites, government information and previous fact checks.

When it comes to claims by Donald Trump, however, fact-checkers have relied more on news reporting to evaluate his claims than any other source. Roughly 68% of their Trump verdicts in the last four months have relied upon news reports in some way, with 67% of the Washington Post’s sources being media reports, followed by 60% of Snopes’, 45% of the New York Times’ sources, 30% of FactCheck.org’s and 25% of PolitiFact’s.

Across all claims from any source, 91% of Snopes’ fact checks in the RealClear Fact Check Review relied at least in part on a news report to justify its verdict, followed by 81% of PolitiFact’s, 78% of the Washington Post’s, 57% of FactCheck.org’s and 47% of the New York Times’.

In all, 76% of the claims across the five fact-checkers relied in some way on journalism to justify their findings.

Fact-checkers can rely upon media reports for a variety of reasons. In some cases, a first-person report may be used to corroborate or refute claims about a specific event, while in other situations a media report’s analysis of a data set or interview with a source may be used in place of the fact-checker performing independent research or interviewing that source themselves.

This heavy reliance on journalism as determiner of “truth” creates dangerous circular reasoning in which journalists rely on fact-checkers to verify claims, while those fact-checkers rely on those same journalists’ reporting to decide whether the claims are true.

In the end, to the public, “fact-checking” implies primary sources and original research, not summarizing news coverage. As fact-checkers become more reliant on journalism as truth, perhaps they should re-label themselves as summarizers rather than truth arbitrators.

Explore the Fact Check Review yourself to jump right in and see claims by Donald Trump or Joe Biden over the last four months or to see a full list of claims that relied at least in part on news reports for verification.

RealClear Media Fellow Kalev Leetaru is a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. His past roles include fellow in residence at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government.

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