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The Rise of Political Fact-checking

How Reagan Inspired a Journalistic Movement: A Reporter’s Eye View
  • By Michael Dobbs
February 24, 2012 |

This report uses the Washington Post as a case study to trace the rise of modern political fact-checking.

It considers fact-checking as a symptom of the larger, centuries-old struggle between the political establishment and the Fourth Estate to shape the narrative that will be presented to the voters. Through devices such as “Pinocchios” and “Pants-on-Fire” verdicts, journalists have formally asserted their right to adjudicate the truth or falsehood of the carefully-constructed campaign narratives of political candidates. This represents a shift of power back to the media following a low point during the run-up to the war in Iraq when The Post and other leading newspapers failed to seriously challenge the White House line on “weapons of mass destruction.”

The modern-day fact checking movement can be dated back to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who attracted widespread ridicule for his claim that trees cause four times more pollution than automobiles. The ascent of political bloggers during the 2004 campaign put additional pressure on The Post and other mainstream news outlets to upgrade their fact checking operations. The Internet has democratized the fact-checking process by making information that was previously available only through expensive news databases such as Lexis-Nexis easily accessible to bloggers without any research budget.

Politicians initially reacted to the rise of the fact-checkers with suspicion and hostility, but now accept them as a permanent part of the media culture. The audience for political fact checking is closely tied to the campaign season. The Washington Post Fact Checker blog run by Glenn Kessler now receives about one million page views a month, with the audience for individual posts ranging from 25,000 to 400,000 views. Judging from the experience of 2008 presidential campaign, the audience is likely to grow significantly as the campaign approaches. The fact checking movement has provided journalists with an additional tool for exposing political spin and increasingly sophisticated media manipulation techniques. In order to make the most effective use of this tool, however, fact checkers need to ally themselves more closely with readers, a source of invaluable expertise. Future directions for fact-checking include “crowd sourcing,” “audience integration,” and the creation of networks of authoritative experts.

Download a pdf of the full report here.

Candidates rarely admit that they have made a mistake or told an untruth. The most that they are usually willing to do is stop repeating the falsehood which, in my experience, happened in perhaps 20-30 per cent of the cases I fact checked, depending on the level of embarassment.

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