Informed Participation: Facts over Falsehoods: Growing the Fact-Checking Movement

Journalists have long been taught that they must withhold judgment and give equal weight to all sides of a story to maintain their credibility even when evidence weighs heavily towards one side and against another. All too often this practice allows candidates, pundits, and advocates to get away with deceptive arguments as strapped reporters publish “he said, she said” reports.

In recent years, a new practice, “fact checking,” has emerged within journalism to provide reporters with novel tools and resources that authoritatively allow them to call out deception when they see it. Fact-checking advocates seek to empower reporters to hold public leaders and political flacks accountable for what they say, while bolstering journalists’ independent credibility. The most prominent leaders of this work, Factcheck.org and PolitiFact, have been joined by countless other fact check columns and features in newsrooms and local stations across the country and around the world.

At the heart of fact checking is the notion that productive democratic debate is impossible without facts, and that voters struggle to make sense of political messages when myth and deception overwhelm the information available to them. Moreover, when campaigns prey on emotion and prejudice, they can deepen ideological divides and ultimately prevent voters from making informed decisions at the ballot box. With this in mind, the Democracy Fund has sought to bolster the nascent fact-checking movement to help combat the ease with which lies spread through today’s media echo chambers and micro-targeted political advertising.

Our funding priorities have focused on three approaches to expand the reach and influence of fact checking:

  • Research to demonstrate the value of fact checking, to show how it changes politics and the news media, and to explore how it can be more effective;
  • Innovative experiments to improve the effectiveness and reach of fact checking;
  • New resources to equip journalists with the skills and information they need to adopt fact-checking practices.

Studying How to Combat Deception & Public Myths

Early research supported by the Democracy Fund demonstrated that fact checking does help combat deception. In a peer-reviewed study of 1,200 legislators in nine states, Brendan Nyhan from Dartmouth College and Jason Reifler of the University of Exeter found that candidates and policymakers who were sent reminders that they could be fact checked showed a 55% reduction in the likelihood of receiving a negative PolitiFact rating or having the accuracy of their statements questioned publicly, in comparison to legislators who were not sent reminders.

Building from these 2014 findings, the Democracy Fund is currently supporting more than half a dozen studies to help the field understand how inaccurate information spreads, how fact checking influences candidates, whether fact checking influences what the public believes, and how public myths can be best corrected. Democracy Fund-supported research is also looking at the degree to which fact checking attracts readers in ways that improve the profitability of publications that feature them, as well as at how journalists’ fact checking attitudes influence whether or not they adopt the practice.

We expect results from this research over the next year.

Improving the Reach and Impact of Fact Checking

The Democracy Fund has also supported several innovative experiments intended to expand the reach and influence of fact checking. One early experiment, led by Flackcheck.org, used humor and parody to make fact checks go viral and bypass the cognitive barriers that can make it difficult to correct the public’s misbeliefs. These parodies were viewed more than 800,000 times during the 2012 election cycle. After the election, The Annenberg Public Policy Center brought political parody practitioners together with professors who study political parody in order to identify strategies for increasing viewership of these types of humorous fact checking videos in future elections.

Additionally in 2012, George Washington University and AmericaSpeaks collaborated on an ambitious experiment to place facts at the center of political discussion. The project, called Face the Facts, sought to trigger political engagement through the distribution of new facts each morning. The facts were disseminated through a wide range of media partners including The Huffington Post and The Tribune Wire Service, and sought not just to reflect existing news priorities, but also to set new ones. The project gained considerable distribution, and though it ended after the 2012 election, helped us think broadly about new ways to reach and engage the public.

Some 75 U.S. news outlets employed fact checking in 2015, a new record, but spending on political advertising also hit new highs. The stakes for political veracity have never been higher.

Tom Rosenstiel, American Press Institute

Finally, a grant to PunditFact sought to stop misinformation right at its source by directly calling out pundits for their falsehoods. Specifically, by conducting more than 250 fact checks last year, PunditFact experimented with sourcing requests for checks from the Reddit community and compiled scorecards for each television news network. In its first year, PunditFact reached a quarter of a million people every month, on average. Importantly, as a direct result of PunditFact’s disclosure of falsehoods, at least 8 pundits have apologized for disseminating erroneous information in 2014 alone. In 2015, PunditFact’s experimentation has continued with an energetic venture to annotate the President’s 2015 State of the Union speech with fact checks as near to live time as possible.

Increasing Training and the Adoption of Fact Checking in Newsrooms

The Democracy Fund’s third approach to supporting fact checking is embodied in our grantees that are encouraging novel tools and resources to expand fact checking adoption across the journalism field. For example, the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania developed “Stand By Your Ad” – a campaign disseminating materials to 1,300 station managers in 2012 that challenged the media to be accountable for what they aired. Independent research found that those who received the materials, along with expert coaching on how to incorporate accountability journalism practices into their work, were significantly more likely to evaluate the accuracy of ads run by interest groups independent of candidates before airing them, or to reject them altogether.

The Annenberg Public Policy Center also disseminated a “Guide to Effective Fact Checking On Air and Online.” This guide provided detailed screen-display do’s and don’t’s for news producers and flagged common patterns of deception. The Center also created a fact checking log to ensure that news stations had easy access to the findings from each of the major fact checking organizations.

Finally, with ongoing support from the Democracy Fund, the American Press Institute has developed a set of fact checking resources for newsrooms and is bringing fact checking training workshops to newsrooms across the country. So far, the workshops have equipped representatives from about 35 newsrooms with the basic knowledge they need to get started in fact checking. Attendees in the first workshops have already put fact checking guidelines into practices—the Concord Monitor has conducted a live-debate fact check, and the York Daily Record has started a “PA Factfinder” column.

Going forward we are continuing to look for ways to strengthen, focus, and increase the impact of fact checking. We will build on the results of soon to be released research, and seek to focus training and leverage technology to better target fact checking on priorities the public cares about.

  • American Press Institute
  • AmericaSpeaks
  • Flackcheck.org
  • Poynter Institute for Media Studies