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Fact-checking politics: Why we need “open journalism” more than ever

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There’s been a lot of sound and fury over Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s speech at the party’s national convention on Wednesday, and how it was riddled with inaccuracies, or what some prefer to call “demonstrably misleading assertions.” Is it news that a politician on the campaign trail would shade the truth, or use underhanded rhetorical tactics? Probably not, but the Ryan speech touched off a powder keg of emotion around the role that the traditional press plays in such acts of political theater, and whether the mainstream media deliberately downplays those kinds of falsehoods. If nothing else, such incidents show that the process of fact-checking and claim-debunking has to be distributed as broadly as possible — particularly to non-traditional sources.

As Andrew Beaujon at Poynter describes in a post about the response to Ryan’s speech, the Republican VP’s comments about what President Obama did or didn’t do appear to have set a new high-water mark for political fabrication and there have been a series of prominent fact-checking pieces that have taken the speech apart piece by piece to demonstrate that — including one at Salon magazine, and even one at Fox News. A special news app the Washington Post built even allows readers to watch the video and go through the speech line-by-line, with fact-checks inserted.

The Washington Post also did a feature on the entire first night of the convention, awarding the Republican party “four Pinocchios” — complete with graphics of the long-nosed puppet — for their repeated distortions of a quote from President Obama. And of course there were reports from the traditional fact-checking outlets Politifact and, which also noted the vast discrepancies between Ryan’s comments and the truth. Tthe Huffington Post notes that many reporters were publicly calling out Ryan’s distortions and untruths on Twitter during the speech:


The New York Times ran a piece about Ryan’s speech that didn’t pull any punches about the mis-statements contained in it, saying up front that the candidate “made several statements that were incorrect, incomplete, or incompatible with his own record in Congress.” A number of observers praised it for being devoted to unambiguous fact-checking — as opposed to the kind of fake balance that Rosen has complained about in what he calls the “View From Nowhere,” where even the most absurd claims are treated as equally deserving of space as the truth.

Has political journalism changed? Not really

So if all of this has been happening — along with repeated fact-checking of Mitt Romney’s comments and ads by the campaign — can we be satisfied that traditional media outlets are doing the job, along with dedicated sites like Politifact and Not really. If anything, the fact that all of this checking is being noticed and publicly applauded reinforces the reality that it is still an unusual activity. The response from CNN’s political host Wolf Blitzer, which Glenn Greenwald describes in a seething post at The Guardian, is typical of the reaction that speeches like Ryan’s get from many outlets, even when they are riddled with lies.

As New York magazine writer Frank Rich pointed out in an interview on Reddit as part of that site’s “Ask Me Anything” feature (which the president took part in on Wednesday in a historic first), even having special reports or features that focus on “fact checking” is an admission that fact-checking doesn’t occur during the regular process of reporting many news stories. As he puts it:

“It is embarrassing (and depressing) that “fact-checker” is now a journalistic gimmick rather than part of the actual process of reporting stories as they emerge… We have lived in the age of Truthiness ever since the Bush administration successfully sold a war in Iraq on pure fiction, which much of the press, including nearly all the major journalistic institutions, going along for the ride. For all the soul-searching that followed that journalistic debacle, I’m not sure that much has changed, sadly.”

The public editor of the New York Times triggered an earlier flame-war over this phenomenon when he asked in a column whether readers expected reporters for the paper to be “truth vigilantes” who challenged candidates and politicians directly on their untrue statements — and the most common response seemed to be shock and outrage that the newspaper hadn’t already been doing exactly that. But as former newspaper editor Dan Conover noted in a recent post, fact-checking of the political kind (as opposed to hard facts like place names or dates) requires a newspaper or journalistic outlet to have a firm position, and that’s not something objective journalists are supposed to do:

“Until a media company rejects the ‘fair and balanced view from nowhere’ that we called ‘journalistic objectivity,’ it simply can’t independently evaluate anything. Just as surveyors must establish a reference point before they begin measuring property lines, so too must journalists find and announce a meaningful perspective before they attempt to measure truth.”

James Fallows at The Atlantic says he is hopeful that in the response to Ryan’s speech, we are seeing the construction of a mainstream press that can cope with what he calls “post-truth politics.” But part of the problem is that once the election campaign is over, even many political journalists will likely go back to the way they used to write and report and think about their coverage, because the source of the most egregious kinds of obvious lies — politicians campaigning for election — will be gone.

Why can’t we have the kind of fact-checking we’ve seen over the past few days all the time? Some newspapers are trying to build tools with which to do that, like the Washington Post‘s “Truth Teller” project, for which it got financing from the Knight Foundation. But more than anything, we need more sources that are willing to call a lie a lie — which is what blogs and alternative sources like Reddit are good at, since they don’t feel a compulsion to adhere to the “view from nowhere” — and more traditional media outlets that are willing to look outside their own newsrooms.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Hans Gerwitz and jphilipg

17 Responses to “Fact-checking politics: Why we need “open journalism” more than ever”

  1. The first time I heard about fact checking was in Tim McGuire’s class. He described it as a process where you flush out questions by making sure the facts in the article, speech, or televised program are true. From this I learned you have to do a serious of questions, and in-depth research to make sure the message is one hundred percent accurate. He also mentioned as journalists this is what makes us a credible source. Tonight Steve Elliott, Kristen DelGuzzi, Alex Ferri, and Christina Leonard did just that.

    Director of Digital News, Steve Elliot believes journalists are leaving their traditional roles behind. Fact checking is a role that we stand firm on, and some leave it behind. Kristen DelGuzzi from AZ Fact Check says, “Fact checking is what good journalists do, and is also a service here in Phoenix, Arizona.” Reporters will send in questions, so they can fact check. But they don’t fact check on your average Joe. They fact check on elite members of society because not everyone tells the truth. Sadly, people tend to extend the truth, and twist it into what they want the viewer to hear. This is where AZ Fact Check comes in, and fills in the truth, or falsehood.

    Alex Ferri, another member from AZ Fact Check believes, “[Fact checking] really flexes your muscles in trying to find documents, and I think it’s a really good basis for journalism.” So if you want to leap down the journalistic river bend, you must fact check and be willing to call out a lie a lie. After all, this is what makes you commendable.

  2. Reality Hammer

    LOLing @ what passes for “fact checking” from liberals! What they call “fact checking” means whether it agrees with liberal dogma. If it doesn’t it is labeled “false”.

    Left-wing bias in media is endemic, and a reason why they can’t see a true statement as true when it disagrees with their bias(es) and why they let leftist falsehoods go without comment.

    It is sad that the left has gone so far around the bend that their definition of “truth” has become “does it agree with liberal dogma”.

  3. Dear Om: Your political bias is showing. It’s rather ironic you tell us that it’s about time the media started checking facts because “politicians lie,” (especially those conservatives you clearly hate), but you don’t bother telling people these “media fact checkers” are, themselves, nothing more than politicians, and hence their “facts” are just as suspect as any politician they’re covering.

    The reality is that Ryan’s speech was not a “new low” in political lies, but the “fact checkers” fact checking was a new low in using “fact checking” as a purely political piece of theater.

  4. Keith Curtis

    There is a flaw in the first sentence of the article. It is up for debate whether Paul Ryan’s speech was “riddled with inaccuracies.” There are numerous articles defending his speech.

    So when you start your article with this very flawed premise, the rest of the article is basically doomed.

    See part of the problem with the media is the dishonesty. Just because lots of media say someone is lying doesn’t make it so. And just because someone says that they will lower the oceans doesn’t make it so.

  5. Jay Wright

    Here is the interesting thing about facts–where do you get your fact from–when did you get them, and why are you so certain they are facts???? Take for example the issue of Ryan voting against something he railed about. Well, did any of you or the FACT checkers ask him why he voted the way he did?? Quite often it is due to some problematic point, not the bill as a whole. Just because a “media source” cannot be found does not make the contention untrue!!

    • Policiians have an enormous range of platforms to state, repeat and CORRECT any misstatements they make. They prefer to have a tame audience of true believers who won’t question their statements becuase it fits in with their narrative and beliefs.

      Journalists have an obligation to ask questions when they think the politician is lying or misleading by ommission, it is only by holding politicians to a standard that we cna cut through the partisan bull and get politicians to be honest.

      But do we really want that? It’s much easier to believe the solutions are simple and that x party is bad, or brand y party or critic a socialist and if only we replaced a government everything would be sunshine and rainbows.

      Critical thinking is hard and we get the government and media we deserve

  6. Grendel

    The idea that journalists can’t *question assertions* and retain an objective viewpoint just highlights the laziness of most current journalists. They would rather just report what was said without opposing viewpoint than include that opposing viewpoint – which would make the piece TRULY neutral. This does not always work in every journalistic realm – like science reporting, for instance – but it is crucial in political reporting. When a politician misquotes an opponent or any other verifiable, unambiguous FACT, that should be called out. If the politician makes an assertion that has an alternate point – like the best course for the future state of the US economy – that alternate theory should be at least mentioned.

    AND: The subject of a piece, or their representatives, DO NOT have the right and should not have the opportunity to “correct” what was said at the time (“what I/he/she meant to say was…”). That has become too much of a standard practice in political reporting and is as close to being a paid staff member of the subject as a journalist can get!

    Anybody who can transcribe from audio to text can do what passes for most “journalism” these days.

  7. Peter Gallher

    We need more sources that are willing to dissect speeches and comments from politicians. As stated in the artcile, that should be a given for reporters and journalists.

    Because of the lack of unbiased and truthful reporting, I’ve switched to newsoutles like or as these shine light on fucked up statements. Also, there is an interesting compilation of sources, that are marked either liberal or conservative here

  8. ranjanxroy

    The fascinating part post-Ryan’s speech was watching the discomfort of the traditional cable news Blitzers try to dance around what they knew were lies. In the past they’ve resorted to their platitudes like “will give the fact-checkers some work to do” or “misleading statements” but you can visibly see their discomfort because they know hundreds of tweets have already called out the lie.

    Even at TalkingPointsMemo their original headline went with “5 fibs” and then you saw stronger language, and that’s one of the more stalwart liberal news outlets.

    The idea that journalists were never supposed to have a view is long, long gone. You see it in tweets from their personal accounts, or pervade every

    Journalists have always had a view, and lies have always been lies. The only thing that’s changed is a news company’s monopoly on broadcasting their thoughts, and that’s why for cable news viewers, it makes for fantastically awkward vieweing!

  9. Thank you for sharing this bit of Pre-US-Election Cabaret! We have plenty of our own as well here on this side of the pond!
    What I find though striking though is the way US mainstream media reports President Obama catastrophical geopolitical misjudgement in the Middle East! Ignoring and not reporting on the rampant threat of terrorism and extremism both on US territory and abroad, hiding facts and sound judgement while misleading the American people on the real threats the US is now confronted with: So true on both parts media are not reporting the facts any more: as if they had be bought by higher instances! This ought not to be! :