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From AJR,   August/September 2012  issue

A Vigorous Endorsement of the Fact-Checking Movement   

The New York Times’ public editor calls on journalists to help the public sort out the truth. Good for her. Mon., September 17, 2012.


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

Welcome aboard, Margaret Sullivan.

Sullivan, the New York Times' new public editor, gave a full-throated endorsement to vigorous fact-checking of newsmakers' assertions in her column over the weekend.

Sullivan, the former editor of the Buffalo News, is more than ready to move beyond the world of he-said, she-said journalism.

"It ought to go without saying, but I'm going to say it anyway: Journalists need to make every effort to get beyond the spin and help readers know what to believe, to help them make their way through complicated and contentious subjects," she wrote.

"The more news organizations can state established truths and stand by them, the better off the readership – and the democracy – will be."

As I've written before, one of the most encouraging developments in U.S. journalism in recent years has been the rise of the fact-checking movement. The trend first manifested itself in stand-alone analyses of various flaps and kerfuffles by new organizations like FactCheck.org and PolitiFact. A number of traditional news outlets followed suit. Now there's much more effort to include the fact-checking in breaking news stories, as was evident in the dissections of Rep. Paul Ryan's acceptance speech.

I was very glad to see Sullivan express her enthusiasm for the practice. As public editor, she doesn't have the power to enforce her views. But as the in-house critic of our leading news organization, her blessing is important symbolically.

By contrast, her predecessor, Arthur S. Brisbane, asked Times readers in a column in January for help in deciding whether challenging newsmakers' assertions in news stories was a good idea. While the piece triggered some valuable discussion, it was clear that Brisbane was somewhat uncomfortable with the notion.

The Times has become much aggressive in its fact-checking efforts. And there was ample support for the practice by other Times journalists in the public editor's column. Richard Stevenson, the paper's political editor, told Sullivan, "Recently, there's been pressure to be more aggressive on fact-checking and truth-squading. It's one of the most positive trends in journalism that I can remember."

And Sullivan quoted Philip B. Corbett, the Times' associate managing editor for standards, as saying, "I think editors and reporters are more willing now than in the past to drill down into claims and assertions, in politics and other areas, and really try to help readers sort out conflicting claims."

That's nothing but good news.

Of course, fact-checking is no panacea. One of the depressing aspects of the current campaign has been the tendency of some candidates to keep repeating dubious claims even after they've been widely debunked.

News outlets can't control people's behavior. But if they jettison false equivalence and continue to make serious efforts to dig out the truth, they will be making an important contribution to the public dialogue.