Fact checkers routinely make methodological flaws and look ideologically biased. This alienates readers from the mainstream media, helping the rise of fake news.
- Fact checkers routinely commit methodological errors.
Fact checkers are never experts in the claim being assessed. Rather, they tend to be ambitious young journalists with too little time, too many deadlines and zero knowledge of the matter at hand. These conditions help create the sloppy journalism exemplified by fact checkers.
What’s so wrong with with fact checking as it is today?
First, a good number of fact checks assess claims about the future, even though predictions about the future are liable to error and impossible to validate conclusively right now. A 2013 study by researchers at the University of Miami found that 18% of fact checks concern future-oriented statements.
Second, many fact checks involve straw manning a vaguely-phrased claim. If Trump claims that crime is rising, this is one that can only be fairly assessed if he makes certain parameters obvious: the type of crime, the geographical extent in question, as well as the time period. But politicians’ statements – often made on the fly – fail to specify these parameters.
It’s not enough to show that violent crime in the U.S. has declined over the past 40 years, if he meant that violent crime increased in 2015, and only in some inner cities. It is terrible practice to take a vague claim, turn it into something more concrete – that isn’t necessarily what the claimant intended – then cross check it against facts.
Third, fact checkers will frequently employ sources selectively, with a bias toward referencing experts who rate a claim false. This practice is rampant when it comes to statistics. NPR claimed that Trump was wrong to suggest he did better than Romney with Latino voters, citing Edison Research. One could, however, just as easily cite Five Thirty Eight, who claim the opposite.
- Because fact checkers commit methodological errors, the ideological bias of the author comes through.
Journalists are overwhelmingly ideologically liberal, and this worldview tends to be obvious in articles that perform fact checks. As a liberal, I happen to share this worldview, but I’m not convinced that any such worldview should be obvious in a piece that claims to be built on facts alone. The tendency toward methodological errors, though, allows for the unintentional slanting of a piece. For example, if you hate Ted Cruz – as most journalists do – you’ll instinctively look for a source that disproves what he says, rather than one that confirms it.
Consider the following fact check from the Washington Post.
It’s exceedingly easy to detect the political sentiments of the author, both in tone and substance:
TRUMP’S CLAIM: “The dishonest media, which has published one false story after another, with no sources, even though they pretend they have them. They make them up in many cases.”
FACT CHECK: “It is unclear what stories Trump is referring to here, but mainstream news organizations do not publish articles with “no sources” and certainly do not “make them up in most cases.” That is grounds for firing. Certainly, sources can be misinformed, and respected news organizations strive to correct or update stories if a mistake has been made. It is worth noting that the Trump White House is often very slow to respond to requests for comment .”
The fact that the author cites no external evidence, goes on the defensive about his own profession and adds an unnecessary – and bitter – comment about the White House’s slowness in replying to requests for comment, should make his worldview fairly obvious.
A fair fact check would have been something along the lines of: “It’s unclear which media outlets or stories Trump, here, is referring to.” An even fairer one would have speculated that Trump could have been referring to any of the following stories, criticized for being of questionable accuracy: this, this, this, this, this or this.
I agree with liberal journalists that our new President has an appalling character and little regard for the truth. Their zeal, however, goes too far. Consider the following fact check, from a catalogue of fifteen “dubious claims” by The Washington Post:
TRUMP’S CLAIM: “The stock market has hit record numbers.”
FACT CHECK: “This is a flip-flop for Trump. Before he was elected, he dismissed the stock-market performance under President Barack Obama as “artificial” and “a bubble,” as Sopan Deb of The New York Times noted.”
With both the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average at record highs, the author performs some impressive mental contortionism to turn a true statement into a “dubious claim”.
Finally, it is suggestive that most fact checking websites not only fact check Republicans more often than Democrats, but are also significantly more likely to rate claims made by Republicans false.
- Independents and Republicans distrust the mainstream press when they perceive that an ideological bias is being presented as “fact”, rather than what it is – a worldview.
According to Gallup, in 2000, roughly half of Americans – whether Republicans, Independents and Democrats – claimed to trust the mass media. That figure, now, stands at 14%, 30% and 51%, respectively. It’s obvious that something has changed – and I would posit that rather than it being the public, it’s the mainstream, liberal media who have changed.
It’s not new for mainstream media organizations to be ideologically liberal. What is new, however, is the epistemological pride that these same organizations will now assume. Fact checkers are one of the most extreme manifestations of this confidence in their particular world view.
In the past, liberal journalists performed accurate reporting, and explained why those facts conformed to a liberal worldview in a separate opinion piece. This is something that conservatives could swallow. Now, liberal journalists have a new genre – “fact checking” – in which one particular worldview is assumed to be a fact.
It’s no surprise that Independents and Republicans find this new genre of journalism unpalatable. It offers little respect – it speaks down to them, rather than to them.
- People who distrust the mainstream media are more likely to buy into fake news.
The mainstream media has changed, but ordinary Independents and Republicans maintain their appetite for news. So where do they go? It should be obvious: Fox News, Breitbart, and – worst of all – fake news sites with no pretensions to accuracy at all.
These people need to be brought back into the fold of mainstream journalism. And for that to happen, liberal journalists need to return to the old, clearer division between fact and opinion.
This isn’t to say that fact checkers are the only or even the primary reason for people buying into fake news. They’re not. But I think there’s good reason for thinking they might have contributed to the problem.
Xavier Bisits is politics graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge. He is now studying business at the University of Virginia.
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