Journalists as truth vigilantes?

When New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane asked whether Times reporters should challenge the ‘facts’ asserted by the newsmakers they write about a large majority of readers responded: "yes, you moron, The Times should check facts and print the truth." That’s pretty much how John Quiggin responded too. But it’s actually a more difficult question than it seems.

Fact-checking is all the rage in the US media. In December Polifact (a fact-checking project of the Tampa Bay Times) announced that the claim Republicans voted to end Medicare was its ‘Lie of the Year 2011‘.

Polifact’s Truth-O-Meter evaluates claims according to their truth or falsity. According to their web site, "truth is not black and white", especially in politics. So the Truth-O-Meter looks at whether claims are accurate, complete and whether they require clarification.

At the Economist Erica Grieder wonders how an inaccurate claim can be lie if the person who made it actually believes that it’s true. And then there’s the arguments about how Medicare is defined and what it means to end or kill something. At the New Republic, Jonathan Chait thinks it’s more a matter of opinion than something that can be fact-checked::

At some point, a change is dramatic enough that it is clearly ending the program. If you proposed to replace Medicare with a plan to give everybody two free aspirin on their 65th birthday, I would hope Politfact would concede that this would be “ending Medicare,” even if you call the free aspirin “Medicare.” On the other hand, small tweaks could not accurately be called “ending Medicare.” Between those two extremes, you have gray areas where you can’t really say with certainty whether a change is radical enough to constitute ending Medicare.

At Press Think, Jay Rosen writes: "Politfact took an arguable point and tried to turn into a lie." At the Columbia Journalism Review, Greg Marx argues that by "acting as if journalistic methods can resolve the argument, the fact-checkers weaken the morally freighted language that’s designed to give their work power".

According to Marx, "the fact-checkers have set their sights on identifying not only which statements are true, but which are legitimate." And that’s probably a more interesting issue than truth. After all, most of the demonstrably untrue statements uttered by politicians are likely to be not all that interesting.

7 thoughts on “Journalists as truth vigilantes?

  1. Very good point Don. Surely there does have to be a middle ground though where, say, journalists point out certain factual parameters to various debates?

    Much like AN’s writing or KP’s writing on boat people or your writing on welfare (not much like your writing on Mitt Romney!) or anything by Peter Whiteford.

    I.e. Z says that X has killed Medicare. Certainly programs c, m and o have been deleted but v, l, e and i remain. M of course was only instituted two years ago but O represented 12.8% of all Medicare expenditure and for 18% of Medicare recipients was their only regular contact with the program.

  2. Is it so hard? I think there are two criticisms you could make, wrong and misleading. Simple fact claims are either correct or not, but most assertions are more complicated and so the question is whether they are misleading. The polifact concept seems sensible, but I guess you have to ask who is checking the checkers.

  3. yes, the issue of truth in public life is tricky. The two opposing forces (a huge demand for convenient lies versus the charming naivity of truth seeking) seem to give rise to a market equilibrium whereby most things that are said are untrue from the standard of reasonableness, but whose factual veracity is sufficiently hard to disprove that most of the audience loses track. ‘We will create a million jobs’, ‘this policy will avert global warming’, and ‘there will be no child left behind’. Absurd statements but all to often applauded.

  4. The problem for me is that too many media organisations do not challenge because they don’t want to ruin their supply line or they are straight-jacketed by old methods of journalism ie. balancing a story with the opposing voice, even when it proves to be jaw-droppingly untrue. That’s how lies can be quietly peddled through the media until, amazingly, they become accepted as facts.

  5. Don,

    Your post is good as far as it goes, but what about system instability?

    That is, the tendencies of most dynamic ‘systems’ to have inherent instability at some level of operation. This is certainly true of biological systems, environmental systems, electrical and water supply systems – and one would hardly call the present world economic situation as stable. But is anyone modelling dynamic economic systems (a good model would be able to tell under what circumstances a system will crash).

    The usual suspects for causation of instability of biological/environmental/engineering systems are: Boundaries/interconnections between different systems, step changes in operating parameters, lack of criteria for system failure (so operating parameters go way out of specification without anybody noticing until the system starts to self destruct), and lack of any meaningful control over the system.

    Can you point me to any serious dynamic modelling of systems done for economic systems?

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