Should fact checking be part of journalism?

Earlier in the year, Arthur Brisbane, then public editor of the New York Times, drew the ire of the Internet for this post:

I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge “facts” that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.

The answer was a resounding ‘yes, and by the way, what made you even think to ask such an obvious question?’ Some months later I had trouble trying to work out precisely how that whole little spat started but I just wanted to remind everyone of it before delving into my main question.

With all the talk of ‘fact checking’ over the past two weeks, I wondered: is this an equilibrium? The idea of fact checking is obvious. Someone says something, a journalist spends time investigating and then they tell us whether it was true or not. With the journalist standing between the politician (or whomever) and the public, only the truth should filter through. Now, of course, it is not as simple as that as even conclusive checking of facts does not necessarily mean that all members of the public hold the truth but imagine, for a moment, if it did. Moreover, imagine (again not necessarily true in reality) that there was some punishment for speaking untruths.

In this case, phase 2 of the role of fact checking engages. The politician, knowing that a journalist will check facts, only speaks the truth. That sounds great, right?

But there is a problem. The journalist creates a story by reporting something interesting. Now, you might want to argue that there is something interesting in the headline “so and so spoke the truth.” If that was a rare event, that might be interesting. However, when the system works as I described it above, that headline is generated for every speech, press release, interview or public statement. Even if that made the paper, it is not going to grab attention. And if it does not grab attention, the journalist has a problem. By contrast, find a false statement and you have a story. (And the same logic holds doubly true for The Daily Show).

The issue here is that, in the posited equilibrium where the system works well and produces the truth, the journalist incurs all of the costs of fact checking and there are no rewards. Thus, at a base case, we cannot presume that journalists should be required to fact check because there is no equilibrium that sustains it.

In reality, the system does not operate perfectly. There is some probability that facts will go unchecked and so there is some probability that politicians will try and get away with not speaking the truth. There is also ambiguity as to what is that truth. Those imperfections will sustain some incentives for journalists to fact check but not an incentive to do so infallibly.

In the end, if we want fact checking we need politicians who are willing to try and lie. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that the positive externality and lying politician gives to the incentives for journalists to investigate should be rewarded but I can imagine that might be the implication of the ‘calm economics‘ of all this. In its absence, fact checking will not be a journalistic endeavour but a pure public activity.

3 Replies to “Should fact checking be part of journalism?”

  1. People expect journalists to do some fact checking so they don’t have to, but can still find out if politicians and the like are telling the truth or a reasonable version of it. This is why journalists earn a salary, otherwise you might as well just watch ads or read press releases. It doesn’t matter if it encourages truth telling. In fact, it probably won’t. There are lots of advantages to telling lies, even if most people recognize them as lies. On the other hand, if journalists don’t do fact checking, there is less and less reason for anyone to pay attention to them, or, more importantly, to pay for them. It’s not the internet that has put journalism into a crisis, but the long years of stenography which have destroyed a hard earned reputation. (There are also the costs of all those mergers and acquisitions, but that’s for 10K freaks.)

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