An observation regarding factchecking and journalism from an outsider

Okay, I’m not in the news business, and I’m not going to tell anyone how to do their job. However, it’d be good to have news reporting that I could trust again, and there’s evidence that factchecking is an idea whose time has come.

This results from smart people making smart observations, at two recent conferences about factchecking, one run by Jeff Jarvis at CUNY (with me involved) and a more recent one at the New America Foundation. I’ve surfaced the issue further by carefully circulating a prior version of this paper.

Restoring trust to the news business via factchecking, etc, might be an idea whose time has come. It won’t be easy, but we need to try.

Factchecking is difficult, time consuming, and expensive, and it’s difficult to make that work in current newsrooms. There are Wall Street required profit margins, and the intensity of the 24×7 news cycle. The lack of factchecking becomes obvious even to guys like me who aren’t real smart.

It’s worse when, say, a cable news reporter interviews a public figure, and that figure openly lies, and the reporter is visibly conflicted but can’t challenge the public figure. That’s what Jon Stewart calls the “CNN leaves it there” problem, which may have become the norm. When such interviews are run again and quoted, that reinforces the lie, and that’s real bad for the country.

Turns out that the NY Times just asked “Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?” That’s a much more pointed version of the question I’ve previously posed. The comments are overwhelming, like “isn’t that what journalists do?” and the more succinct “duh.”

For sure there are news professionals trying to address the problem, like the folks at Politifact and We also see great potential at American Public Media Public Insight Network; with training in factchecking, their engaged specialist citizens might become a very effective citizen factchecking network. (This list is far from complete.)

My guess is that we’ll be seeing networks of networks of factcheckers come into being. They’ll provide easily available results using multiple tools like the Truth Goggles effort coming from MIT, or maybe simple search tools that can be used in TV interviews in real time.

Seems like a number of people in journalism have similar views, here’s Craig Silverman from Poynter reporting recent conferences.

Silverman and Ethan Zuckerman had a really interesting discussion regarding the consequences of deception:

That brings me to the final interesting discussion point: the idea of consequences. Can fact checking be a deterrent to, or punishment for, lying to the public?

“I’m surprised we’re not talking about how fact checking could reduce misinformation in the long term by creating consequences, creating punishment,” said Harvard’s Ethan Zuckerman at the DC event.

I’m an optimist, and hope that an apparent surge of interest in factchecking is real. Folks, including myself, have been pushing the return of factchecking for some months now. Recently, it’s become a more prominent issue in the election.

Again, this is really difficult, but necessary. I feel that the news outlets making a strong effort to factcheck will be acting in good faith and trustworthy, and profitable.

However, this seems like a good way to start restoring trust to the news business.

0 thoughts on “An observation regarding factchecking and journalism from an outsider

  1. I could not agree more.. in fact fact-checking is often the biggest and/or most time consuming part of any writer or journalist’s job. And as you say, it has become perhaps the biggest issue in journalism and media today for independent writers and large news corporations alike. As a former journalist and editor, I’m glad to see you and others getting publicly engaged in this issue and would like to see future posts about how facilitating fact checking in the digital age might improve. Cheers, Mark Gould


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