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Jan. 18, 2012, 10 a.m.

Digging deeper into The New York Times’ fact-checking faux pas

“Truth vigilante” or no, the hubbub over fact-checking in news articles gets at some deeper issues about how journalists view their own work.

Once in a while the cultural fault lines in American journalism come into unexpectedly sharp relief. Jon Stewart’s now-legendary star turn on “Crossfire” was one of those moments; the uproar over NPR’s refusal (along with most major news outlets) to call waterboarding torture was another. The New York Times may have added another clash to this canon with public editor Arthur Brisbane’s blog post on fact-checking last week.

For anyone who missed it (or the ensuing analysis, rounded up here) the exchange can be summed up in two lines of dialogue:

Times to Internet: Should we fact-check the things politicians say?

Internet to Times: Are you freakin’ kidding?

That was an actual response, and a popular refrain: More than a dozen comments included some variant of, “This is a joke, right?” Several readers compared the column to an Onion piece. By far the most common reaction, which shows up in scores of comments, was to express dismay at the question or to say it captures the abysmal state of journalism today. A typical example, from “Fed Up” in Brooklyn: “The fact that this is even a question shows us how far mainstream journalism has fallen.”

The stunning unanimity of reader responses was undoubtedly the big story, as the news intelligentsia pointed out right away. It underscores the yawning gulf that separates professional reporters’ and everyday readers’ basic understandings of what journalism is supposed to do. Of the 265 comments logged in the three hours before the Times turned off commenting, exactly two (discounting obvious sarcasm) disagreed with the proposition that reporters should challenge suspect claims made by politicians. (More on the dissenters, below.) Brisbane’s follow-up, suggesting many readers had missed the nuance by assuming the question was just whether the paper should “check facts and print the truth,” seems off base. A few may have made that mistake, but most clearly have in mind what is sometimes called “political fact-checking” — calling out distortions in political speech.

If anything, reading through the comments what’s striking is the robust and stable critical vocabulary readers share for talking about the failings of conventional journalism. More than a dozen take issue with the definition of journalistic objectivity implied by Brisbane’s wondering whether reporting that calls out untruths can also be “objective and fair.” As a reader from Chicago wrote,

I see this formulation as a problem. Objective sometimes isn’t fair. Some of the people reported on are objectively less truthful, less forthcoming, and less believable than others.

False “balance” in the news is a common trope in the comments, which readers refer to both directly (at least eight times) and via now-standard illustrations of “he said/she said” reporting, like the climate-change debate (brought up by five readers) or the parodic headline “Shape of the Earth? Views differ” (mentioned by another nine). Journalism-as-stenography also comes up frequently — at least 20 of the responses make the comparison specifically, while 16 declare that the Times may as well run press releases if it isn’t going to challenge political claims.

The disconnect between reporters and readers, and the paradox at the center of “objective” journalism, comes through most clearly in Brisbane’s rendering of the division of labor between the news and opinion pages. Pointing to a column in which Paul Krugman debunked Mitt Romney’s claim that the President travels the globe “apologizing for America,” Brisbane explains that,

As an Op-Ed columnist, Mr Krugman clearly has the freedom to call out what he thinks is a lie. My question for readers is: should news reporters do the same?

To anyone not steeped in the codes and practices of professional journalism, this sounds pretty odd: Testing facts is the province of opinion writers? What happens in the rest of the paper? As JohnInArizona commented,

Mr. Brisbane’s view of the job of op-ed columnist vs that of reporters seems skewed.

It is the job of columnist to present opinion and viewpoint, and to persuade. It is the job of reporters to present facts, as best as they can determine them.

As others have pointed out, uncritically reprinting politicians’ statements is not what a good reporter, or a good newspaper, should be doing. There is no choosing between competing facts — a statement is factual, or is not…

Journalism has a ready response for this line of critique: The truth is not always black and white, and reporters run the risk of “imposing their judgement on what is false and what is true” (Brisbane’s phrase) by weighing in on factual questions more complicated than the shape of the earth. Politicians are expert in misleading without lying, and people may genuinely disagree about what the facts are — based on different notions of what constitutes a presidential apology, for instance.

Even in these cases though, a reporter can add context to help readers assess a claim. Brisbane himself suggests that,

Perhaps the next time Mr. Romney says the President has a habit of apologizing for his country, the reporter should insert a paragraph saying, more or less: “The president has never used the word ‘apologize’ in a speech about U.S. policy or history. Any assertion that he has apologized for U.S. actions rests on a misleading interpretation of the president’s words.”

A few readers responded that the second sentence is superfluous. Several others suggested doing additional reporting around the question, along these lines: “A real reporter might try to find those speeches. A real reporter might request that the Romney campaign provide examples of times where Obama has apologized for America…”

That sort of reporting is exactly what fact-checkers at PolitiFact and the Washington Post did to refute the claim, reconstructing the “apology tour” meme as developed in various Republican documents (Romney’s 2010 book “No Apology,” a Karl Rove op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, a Heritage Foundation report, etc.) and digging into the actual text of Obama’s speeches as well as comparable ones by previous presidents. PolitiFact went so far as to interview several experts on diplomacy and political apologies. Reading the public editor’s letter, though, you’d have no idea that the key example he uses to illustrate his column already has been checked and found wanting.

More to the point, you’d have no clue about what AJR has called the “fact-checking explosion” in American journalism — a movement that is at least a decade old (the short-lived Spinsanity launched in 2001, followed by in 2003) and now spans dedicated fact-checking groups as well as newspapers, TV networks, radio outlets, and even journalism schools. (Full disclosure: I’m writing a dissertation, and eventually a book, about this movement.) Fact-checking has been very much in the ether lately, with news gurus weighing in on the limits of this kind of journalism, especially during the controversy over PolitiFact’s latest “Lie of the Year” selection.

The fact-checking movement is part of a larger ongoing conversation about journalistic objectivity that began with the news media’s failures in the lead-up to the Iraq war. (See Brent Cunningham’s “Rethinking Objectivity,” Jay Rosen’s “The View from Nowhere,” Michael Massing’s “Now they Tell Us.”) Most fact-checking groups don’t spend a lot of time tweaking their peers in the press, even though the claims they check usually go unchallenged in news accounts. But they don’t have to — their entire project is a critique of mainstream journalism, a self-conscious experiment in “rethinking objectivity.”

That sense of mission — of fact-checking as a kind of reform movement — is unmistakable when fact-checkers get together, as at a New America Foundation conference on the subject last December, and one at CUNY the month before. (Here’s a write-up of the two conferences.) In a report written for the New America meeting, the Post’s original “Fact-Checker” columnist, Michael Dobbs, placed fact-checking in a long tradition of “truth-seeking” journalism that rejects the false balance practiced by political reporters today. (Three reports from that conference will be published over the next month.)

From the precincts of this emerging reformist consensus, Brisbane’s column seemed surprisingly out of touch. Still, the public editor raises questions that haven’t been answered very well in the conversation about fact-checking. It’s easy to declare, as Brook Gladstone did in a 2008 interview with Bill Moyers, that reporters should “Fact check incessantly. Whenever a false assertion is asserted, it has to be corrected in the same paragraph, not in a box of analysis on the side.” (I agree.) But why, exactly, don’t they do that today? Why has fact-checking evolved into a specialized form of journalism relegated to a sidebar or a separate site? Are there any good reasons for it to stay that way?

Answering those questions has to begin with a better understanding of why so many traditional “objective” journalists are wary of the fact-checking upstarts. Michael Schudson, a historian of journalism (and my graduate-school advisor), has written that the “objectivity norm guides journalists to separate facts from values, and report only the facts.” In practice, though, the aversion to values becomes an aversion to evaluation. Hence the traditional rule against “drawing conclusions” (discussed here) in news reports. Brisbane doesn’t flesh out this rationale, but one of his readers captured it perfectly, and is worth quoting at length:

I cannot claim to be a regular reader of the New York Times, and I cannot claim to have ever been to journalism school. Finally, I also cannot claim to know what “the truth” is. I do not understand why so many readers are presenting such unequivocal opinions as commentary here.

If a candidate for US president says something — anything — I would like to know what he or she said. That’s reporting, and that’s “the truth” in reporting: a presentation of the facts, as objectively as possible.

Whether a candidate was coy about something, exaggerating something else, using misleading language, leaving something out of his or her public statements… all of these things are analysis. …

Finally, it is the responsibility of the reader, of the informed citizen, to take all of this in and think for himself or herself, to decide where he or she stands on issues, on phenomena in society. Neither the New York Times nor any other newspaper ought to have the privilege of taking that final step for anyone.

This reads like a more thoughtful version of David Gregory’s infamous response when asked why he doesn’t fact-check his on-air guests: “People can fact-check ‘Meet the Press’ every week on their own terms.” It rests on the concern — elaborated in this Politico post and in a Journal editorial — that fact-checking tends to shade into opinion, glossing over genuine differences in political ideology. The WSJ decried a “journalistic trend that seeks to recast all political debates as matters of lies, misinformation and ‘facts,’ rather than differences of world view or principles.”

The only problem with the “don’t draw conclusions” standard is that reporters draw conclusions all of the time, and now more than ever. The decades-long trend toward more analytical reporting, probably self-evident to any news junkie, has been thoroughly documented by communications scholars (who, following Kevin Barnhurst, sometimes call this “the new long journalism” or the “decline of event-centered reporting.”) Reporters are of course especially comfortable drawing conclusions about political strategy, liberally dispensing their analysis of what a candidate or officeholder hopes to gain from particular “messaging” and whether the strategy is like to work.

So objective journalism applies the ban on drawing conclusion very selectively. What seems to make reporters uncomfortable is not analysis per se but criticism, especially criticism that can be seen as taking sides on a controversial question — which they will avoid even at the risk of profound inconsistency. Here’s Bill Keller’s much-ridiculed rationale (quoted in a Media Decoder post) for refusing to describe waterboarding as torture in the pages of the Times, though the paper had often referred to it that way before the U.S. took up the practice:

When using a word amounts to taking sides in a political dispute, our general practice is to supply the readers with the information to decide for themselves.

The result revealed the awkward gap between common sense and journalistic sense. Common sense says, if it was torture then, it’s torture now. Journalistic sense says, this is really controversial! It’s not our job to accuse a sitting president of authorizing an illegal global regime of torture! (Conversely, it was profoundly uncontroversial to apply the label to waterboarding in a country such as China. Journalists could do so unthinkingly.)

This political risk aversion is nothing new. One of the most cited pieces of research on journalism is Gaye Tuchman’s ethnographic look at the “strategic ritual” of objectivity as practiced in a newspaper newsroom in the 1960s. Tuchman stressed the essentially defensive nature of the claim to be objective, and of the reporting routines it produced. Her “newsmen” shied away from criticism of public figures or public policies — or found someone else to voice them — because they were deeply, institutionally afraid of drawing attacks or even lawsuits from the people they reported on. (They used the “news analysis” label to set off reports that were less “objective,” though Tuchman found reporters and editors could not supply a coherent rationale for distinguishing between the two kinds of stories.)

The new, professional fact-checkers are specialized in ways that mitigate (but don’t eliminate) these concerns. They dedicate pages to analyzing even a simple claim, showing all of their work, so that someone who dislikes the result might still agree it was reached fairly. Full-time fact-checkers don’t have to worry about losing “access” to a public figure, because they don’t rely on inside information. (For the same reason, fact-checkers don’t use anonymous sources.) And they obviously — to occasional criticism — make an effort to check politicians from both sides of the aisle.

And still, fact-checkers constantly come in for vehement attacks from political figures and from the reading public. It’d be hard to prove that this is more pronounced than what traditional news outlets weather; my anecdotal sense is that it might be. (They manage this feedback in interesting ways; for instance, neither nor PolitiFact allow comments on the same page as their fact-checks, though they do often run selections from reader mail.) Without validating the view that “if everybody’s mad at us, we must be doing something right” — a journalistic reflex one also hears from fact-checkers — it has to be acknowledged that this is a deeply polarizing activity. Managing that polarization is part of what fact-checkers have to do in the effort to stay relevant and make a difference in public discourse.

The hope for building fact-checks into everyday news reports is that it would push political reporters to be more thoughtful and reflexive about their own work — to leave out quotable-but-dubious claims, to resist political conflict as the default frame, and in general to avoid the pat formulations that are so ably managed by political actors. But inevitably, all of us will be disappointed, even pissed off, by some of these routine fact-checks — and perhaps all the more so when they’re woven into the story itself.

To take Brisbane’s question seriously and think about how this might be put into practice, we have to consider how reporters will manage the new set of pressures this work will expose them to. And we have to confront the paradox that trying to create a platform for a more fact-based and reasonable public discourse may also, at the same time, promote further fragmentation and politicization of that discourse.

Lucas Graves is a PhD candidate in communications at Columbia University and a research fellow at the Media Policy Initiative of the New America Foundation.

POSTED     Jan. 18, 2012, 10 a.m.
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