Fact-checking Has Become a Partisan Charade
Half of society doesn't trust fact-checkers, but they don't seem to care.
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As we hurtle onward in the wasteland of post-truth politics, where no one agrees on a shared set of facts, where every argument is disputed at its premise, and where misinformation and conspiracy theories run rampant, we need impartial arbiters who can help set the record straight. Fact-checking is more needed than ever, and yet less trusted than ever. The fact-checking industry has lost its credibility in the eyes of the public, for reasons they seem unwilling or unable to address. We’ll explore what has gone wrong, what needs to be done, and what we as news consumers can do to better filter our information feeds for quality.
What’s the Matter With Fact-Checking?
The problem with the fact-checking industry isn’t accuracy. Sure, fact-checkers sometimes get things wrong, and anyone seeking examples doesn’t need to look far, but so do all journalists. Even in a realistic best-case scenario, fact-checking would still occasionally drop the ball. Public trust doesn’t require perfection. It’s understood that experts are still only human. They nibble their caviar one bite at a time like the rest of us. Experts just need to be more competent than non-experts by a wide enough margin to make trusting what they have to say a good bet. It’s not a very high bar, and with all its woes, fact-checking still clears this modest hurdle. Nevertheless, more accuracy, transparency, and humility when mistakes are made (and mistakes should be rare) can only help, even if that’s not the primary problem.
What has lost fact-checking the public’s confidence is the perception of ideological bias and partisan agenda. 48 percent of Americans believe that fact-checkers favor one side. For the news media in general, that figure is 72 percent. Nearly half of society thinks fact-checkers lean politically left and are biased against conservatives. It’s common knowledge that the press corps is overwhelmingly left-of-center, and the line between journalism and activism appears to be blurring with every passing year. Fact-checks of right wing conspiracy theories and misinformation get more media play than fringe views or falsehoods on the left. This perception of selectivity, double standards, and unequal treatment maintains the appearance of bias and unfairness.
Perception is not necessarily reality, however, and there is surprisingly little hard data on bias in fact-checking. While the presence of bias seems likely given the known dynamics, it’s beside the point. Whether or not fact-checkers are indeed biased, if half of society thinks that they are, and these concerns go unaddressed and unassuaged, as they have been, then the whole enterprise of fact-checking becomes a pointless partisan charade. If only the left half of society trusts fact-checking, then it has no redeeming social value except as a jobs program. Answering this crisis of trust with “Well, reality has a liberal bias” is as unhelpful and masturbatory as fact-checks that only preach to the choir.
Whatever you believe regarding the biases of the fact-checking industry, the first step to gaining trust with the right half of society is to take visible steps toward becoming — or appearing — less partisan, less ideological, and more neutral. There should be a roughly 50/50 split in the attention given to fact-checking both the left and right. Left wing misinformation should be policed just as assiduously as that on the right wing, and much more of a show should be made of these fact-checks. It’s not enough for organizations to perform the fact-checks if they’ll languish in obscurity on unvisited corners of their sites — they should be boomed from the rooftops.
Let the public see recognizable name-brand fact-checkers taking gender ideologists to task on dubious biological claims, or calling out the incredible ignorance of left-leaning figures on the actual statistics of police violence. Let the public see progressives meltdown on Twitter and throw tantrums in comment sections. Let the public see Vox, Buzzfeed, and The Nation churn out hit pieces about Politifact, Snopes, and FactCheck.org. You want to broaden the bipartisan credibility of the fact-checking industry? Few tools will prove more fruitful than progressive paroxysms of rage. Leftist tears are the salve that will heal a divided nation.
Back on Planet Earth, there is very little reason to expect the fact-checking industry to address this issue, certainly not in large enough numbers to make a difference. They are too captured by ideology, too inbred, too influenced by their peer-group and professional incentives, and too oblivious not only to public opinion but to their role and impact on wider society. In a word, they’re too far up their own asses. But there are things that we can do ourselves to be more informed — and less misinformed.
Consume less news
Even in an information utopia, there are limits to how much you can absorb and retain. After a certain point, you reach diminishing returns. Being a news junky does not lead to being better informed, it just makes you angrier, more anxious, and exposes you to more falsehoods. Err on the side of less is more. It’s better to be uninformed than misinformed. 10-20 minutes a day is all you need to bring yourself reasonably up to speed on the news of the day. If your appetite for information exceeds that, read a book.
Manage Your Expectations
A smart news consumer understands how news works and what news fundamentally is. News coverage exists on the lower end of the reliability spectrum, ahead of things like gossip, rumor, and hearsay, but well behind long-form journalism, non-fiction books, textbooks, peer-reviewed articles, scientific studies, etc. News stories are, by definition, still developing, and every incentive pushes journalists and press outlets to be the first to cover something. Speed takes precedence over accuracy, because humans are interested in news, and will reward anyone reporting it with their lucrative attention. Outlets who wait for the facts to come in will watch competitors eat their lunch.
Take news neither as gospel nor bullshit, but as provisional information about constantly developing stories where the full facts aren’t yet available. Expect information to evolve. New details can and likely will emerge. News serves a vital function, but it’s not the same thing as settled fact, and you must understand that difference. Once all the facts are in, and the story is no longer developing, it ain’t news — it’s history. And even then, we sometimes discover new details.
The Difference Between Opinion/Commentary and News Reporting
This might seem like a basic distinction, but returning to fundamentals is a good idea in troubled times. Many news-related organizations publish several different types of content. Among these are opinion pieces and news reports. Opinion journalism reflects the views and analysis of the author(s). They offer commentary on the news, but are not — and should not be consumed in lieu of — the news itself. News reports outline the facts as then known, with less editorializing than opinion pieces.
This is an example of a news report. This is an example of an opinion piece. Both cover the same event, but one reports facts as known at the time while the other comments on them. Note: most forms of new media (podcasts, newsletters, blogs, YouTube, etc.) are opinion, not news reporting.
Diversify Your News Diet
Consume a variety of sources, including both right and left-leaning outlets, as well as a balance of old and new media. As a general rule, far-right and far-left sources are less journalistically rigorous than their more moderate counterparts. Ditto new media compared to old media. They’re useful in moderation, but a news feed top-heavy with alternative media or far-right/left sources will be one that exposes you to a shoddier balance of information on average. Diversity is key.
Filtering Out the Low-hanging BS
There are some avenues of information so low in quality that they are better off being avoided altogether. Chain emails, shared screenshots, message boards and forums, and unsubstantiated claims made on social media or group chat servers are havens for conspiracy theories, falsehoods, and fake news. Leaving these out of your information diet will drastically cut down on the most abject bullshit. In addition, when encountering a source or website you’re unfamiliar with, take a moment and plug its name into a search engine. Within a minute, you’ll know what you’re dealing with. Content found on blogs is not necessarily false, but you should be aware that you are, in fact, reading a blog and not a news site. Similarly, recently created websites are not necessarily fake, but it’s relevant to know a source’s backstory.
Research Resources and Tips
A good starting point when researching an unfamiliar subject is reading its Wikipedia page and following the footnotes. It will help point you in a useful direction, and may connect you to sources that search engines might not turn up. Again, this is a first step, not a one-stop shop.
Look for replication. If a particular finding is independently discovered or verified by multiple parties, it’s more reliable than if evidenced by only a single source.
Media Bias Fact Check is a database of most news and opinion sites, and scores them by reliability and political bias. The site itself has a center-left bias, and is not foolproof, but I’ve found it helpful in navigating the media landscape.
Sometimes the single best thing you can do to ascertain the truth is to wait for the details to emerge. When there’s a developing situation involving a highly-charged political issue, much of the early reporting and initial news coverage may prove to be inaccurate, sometimes wildly so.
See also: “Nobody Wins in the Information Wars”
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