… My heart’s in Accra Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

December 14, 2011

Lucas Graves on the rise of fact checking

Filed under: Media — Ethan @ 1:18 pm

Lucas Graves, a doctoral student at Columbia and a research fellow at the New America Foundation, frames a discussion on fact checking by offering a detailed landscape of the fact checking movement. (That discussion is under Chatham House rules, but Lucas has been kind enough to allow me to post notes on his presentation.) He suggests we consider three groups of fact checkers:

– Reporters at organizations like the Associated Press or New York Times who conduct occasional fact checking after a debate. We can consider these people professional journalists engaged, part-time, in fact checking.

– Full-time, dedicated fact checkers like Politifact, Dactcheck.org, and the Washintgon Post’s fact check columns, which Lucas calls “the elite fact checkers”.

– Political and partisan fact checkers, like Media Matters and Newsbusters. They’re engaged, in part as media critics. But they also do work that can be very high quality fact checking.

All three types of fact checking appear to be on the rise. So Graves suggests we consider the origins of the movement. Some trace fact checking to the 1988 US presidential campaign and the Willie Norton ads designed to damage Dukakis. Others trace it to Ronald Reagan’s presidency and his gift for generating misinformation. Graves invites us to consider I.F. Stone’s newsletter, produced through 1950s and 1960s.

Stone was a muckraking journalist who worked within mainstream print journalism early in his career, and who – after being blacklisted – published a newsletter titled “The Weekly”. Graves shows us what he believes is the first fact checking box. It appears in a 1958 issue of The Weekly, and it begins with a statement from Dr. Edward Teller, where he contends that the global risk of nuclear fallout is equivalent to the dangers of being an ounce overweight, or smoking a cigarette a month. It’s followed by an authoritative rebuttal from an established source, in this case, four paragraphs from Bulletin of Atomic Scientist. Graves points out that Stone was, by no one’s account, an objective journalist. He wore his liberal politics on his sleeve, and believed in calling out hypocrisy and deception where he found it.

Is fact checking a specialized genre of news practice? Or should every reporter fact check? Brooke Gladstone has argued that the only way to check the spread of lies in the media is to fact check incessantly, in each paragraph they publish.Is it plausible to produce journalism in this way? Should we accept a system in which one article tells us what politicians said in a debate, and another, separate article that tells us which of those statements were true?

How big is the fact checking space? Graves has searched for the term “fact check” in Nexis – he finds 153 mentions in 2004, versus 371 in 2010. At the same time, he sees a decrease in the term “ad watch”, and a brief spike around “truth squad” in 2008. There appears to be a trend towards increasing fact checking identified as such, and some convergence on the term “fact check”, and a move away from only fact checking political ads.

fact checks appear most often in September and October – in 2008, 82% of fact checks appeared in those months. But that figure dropped to roughly half in 2010.

Using this set of data – stories that mentioned the phrase “fact check”, Graves notes that the term appeared primarily in dedicated fact checking articles in 2000 and 2004, but is increasingly common in “ordinary” articles since then. Still, the term appears most often in dedicated fact checking articles.

He returns the discussion to I.F. Stone to ask what role partisan fackcheckers serve. He asks us to consider a claim made by rightwing candidates and pundits that Obama had called Americans “lazy” while speaking at a business forum in Honolulu. Elite fact checkers agreed that the claim was false. Politifact called a statement made by Politifact “mostly false”. The Washington Post Fact Checker gave the Perry statement 4 Pinnochios, their strongest rating of untruth. fact check.org characterized the statement as “lazy rhetoric”, with Obama’s words taken out of context, intended to mislead.

Media Matters analyzed the claim, focusing on ten instances where conservative pundits, mostly speaking on Fox News, offered the same claim. It was presented as media criticism, Graves notes, but the analysis was indistinguishable from “elite” analysis. So do we evaluate Media Matters simply by considering the quality of their work, or do we take seriously their political biases?

One answer is to consider whether the fact checking is successful in reaching across political divides. Politifact and fact check.org are both frequently cited by CNN, and by less partisan networks. Partisan networks (Fox News, MSNBC) mention the two, but they’re each responsible for less than 1/8 of the mentions. Media Matters and Newsbusters are very rarely mentioned on less partisan networks – 2/3rds of their mentions are on the partisan news sites. And the biggest reach for Media Matters is on Fox News, which specializes in attacking their coverage.


  1. I’m reminded of this recent xkcd comic: http://xkcd.com/978/ .

    Comment by John Spevacek — December 14, 2011 @ 1:48 pm

  2. Ethan, thanks, this really helps as I nudge a group of publishers and factcheckers to do lots more.


    Comment by Craig Newmark — December 14, 2011 @ 2:54 pm

  3. We should debrief after this conversation, Craig – it’s been interesting and I can try to fill you in on some of the thinking around the table that I’m prohibited from blogging.

    Comment by Ethan — December 14, 2011 @ 3:10 pm

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