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From AJR,   February/March 2012  issue

Real Time Fact-Checking   

Why news outlets should challenge phony claims by politicians in spot news stories, not just in separate assessments. Thurs., January 12, 2012


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

Arthur S. Brisbane, the New York Times' public editor, is asking his readers for help.

He wants to know if the Times should call out newsmakers when they stretch if not ignore the truth or, in other words, lie. And not just in a separate fact-checking assessment, but in day in and day out coverage.

The answer: a resounding yes.

As I've written before, one of the more encouraging developments in journalism in recent years has been the rise of the fact-checking movement. First came factcheck.org, an initiative of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, in 2003, followed by the Tampa Bay Times' PolitiFact four years later. Many news outlets have followed their lead, and PolitiFact is franchising its operation around the nation.

This was a refreshing change of pace after so many years of news outlets letting politicos make shark-jumping claims, having their rivals deny them and calling it a day.

Mostly the new fact-checking outfits assess the claims of political figures in stand alone, after the fact assessments. And that's terrific. But it doesn't go far enough.

Allowing a politician to get away with nonsense day after day lets false statements seep into the public consciousness. Once that happens, it can be hard to dislodge them. And the separate fact-checking piece, while incredibly valuable, is an imperfect antidote.

Questionable claims should be challenged as quickly as possible. Sometimes that will be possible in a first-day story. Sometimes it won't. In the latter case, once they have run separate assessments of the claims, news outlets should replicate the findings when the allegations come up again. Because so often they do.

If the Times goes this route, as I hope it does, Brisbane wonders if the paper can do so "in a way that is objective and fair."

Sure it can. How? By being an equal-opportunity scold. Hold everyone to account, whether it's President Barack Obama or Mitt Romney or Ron Paul or Newt Gingrich or the local candidate for mayor. A clearly partisan take would be disastrous. A straight-down-the-middle approach would be an immense public service.

But beware of false equivalency. If Democrats are prevaricating more than Republicans, or vice versa, don't succumb to the temptation to be equally tough on both sides.

And know that you will never make everyone happy. Dick Jerardi, the Philadelphia Daily News' excellent basketball writer, wrote this week about the passionate partisans of the city's college hoops teams who are forever convinced he's in the tank for one school and hostile to their squad. As in Middle East coverage, it comes with the territory. To True Believers, if you're not 100 percent on their side, you're against them.

And in heated political battles, both sides will push back at any criticism. Call it working the ref. Props to Brisbane for bringing the issue to the fore. The more news outlets that adopt this approach, the better.