Rise of the fact-checkers

Posted: November 07, 2012

By Steve Hallock

Last week, a group of foreign journalists and politicians visiting Pittsburgh to learn about the presidential election wondered why we Americans and our media allow blatant lies to enter the discussion.

Beyond the obvious answer that they are protected by the First Amendment, this is an important question, especially given journalists' prominent role in disseminating political information. The first tenet of the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics admonishes, "Seek truth and report it; journalists should be honest, fair, and courageous in gathering and interpreting information." This includes the sub-tenet: "Test the accuracy of information from all sources, and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible."

The advertising industry claims to subscribe to similar precepts. Here is the first principle of the American Advertising Federation's Institute for Advertising Ethics: "Advertising, public relations, marketing communications, news, and editorial all share a common objective of truth and high ethical standards in serving the public."

Are they kidding? Anybody who paid attention to the campaign must be laughing right about now.

As I told the foreign delegation, the truth has been a victim of the American political process since the days of Washington and Jefferson. But the deception and accompanying negativity have grown in this era of immense media proliferation. The lies are louder now and repeated more often - to the extent that they play a greater role in shaping the public agenda.

More than accurate

Little can be done about misinformation in the world of advertising, especially in the dominant medium, television. The Federal Communications Commission has been reluctant to police the industry, and the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling cleared the way for even more spending on distorted and false messages.

But there is more hope that journalists can put aside the false god of objectivity in pursuit of the greater principle of truth. Take, for example, CNN correspondent Candy Crowley's real-time fact-checking during the second presidential debate.

When Mitt Romney claimed that President Obama had taken 14 days to identify the Sept. 11 attack on a Libyan consulate as an "act of terror," Obama contradicted him. As the two bickered, Crowley interjected, to audience applause, that the president had actually used terrorism terminology on the day after the attack - while also confirming that the administration had taken two weeks to stop describing it as part of a spontaneous demonstration.

Crowley thus stepped outside the traditional role of moderator to act as a true journalist. In the process, she showed how the media can cut through the thick underbrush of distortion and obfuscation in modern political campaigns.

Even when public officials and politicians are telling lies, journalists have to quote them accurately. But it is not enough to be accurate. Nor is it enough to be balanced - to report, for example, that someone has accused a city councilman of accepting bribes and then cover the "other side" by reporting the councilman's denial. The journalist's responsibility as a government watchdog is to find out whether the pronouncement is true.

Not just timekeepers

Crowley is on to something. As the nation ponders the meaning and lessons of this week's elections, those responsible for covering the campaigns should consider how they can do it better next time - in a way that serves not only their audience, but also our democracy.

In this era of live media everywhere all the time, on-the-spot fact delivery would be a welcome prescription. Next-day analysis, after the majority of Americans have watched the debates and gone to bed, certainly is worthwhile. But it comes late, after the initial messages have settled into the nation's subconscious - and after much of the damage of deception has been done.

In future elections, more journalists should build on Crowley's initiative and become more than timekeepers. Let them enter the debate as well-informed keepers of the facts. Let them give fair warning to candidates that any lies detected during debates and interviews will be subject to verification - at the same time and in the same place as their utterances are reported.

Henry David Thoreau wrote that one honest man standing up to slavery would be the beginning of its end. If other journalists follow Crowley's lead and stand up to lies, we might at least see growing reluctance to deceive.

Steve Hallock is the director of the School of Communication at Point Park University in Pittsburgh.

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