The first of two blog posts.
Many news consumers are unclear about the practice of fact-checking, which is commonly used as a proxy for accuracy in journalism. Over the course of two blog posts, I’ll dig deeper into what fact-checking actually is, in practice, and what it aspires to be. The second blog post will be published in July 2020.
One of NewsQ’s aims is to understand what “news quality” means in the context of large-scale information systems that rank, surface and suggest news stories. In order to promote higher quality news online, what needs to change? One of the more complex aspects to consider has been accuracy: how to assess the degree to which a source or story is accurate.
In journalism, the concept of accuracy is closely tied to the concept and practice of fact-checking. So, let’s begin by clarifying the term “fact-checking,” and then by considering the strengths and limitations of the practice.
The Growth of Fact-Checking
Fact-checking is a distinct practice within journalism, with its own set of norms and standards. Norms always change over time, but the practice of fact-checking has seen particular change and attention in recent decades.
According to research from the American Press Institute in 2015, there had been “dramatic” growth in fact-checking since 2010: of “29 branded fact-checking ventures in the U.S., all but five of which were established” since that year. And, “though dedicated, full-time fact checkers remain relatively rare, almost every major national newsroom has embraced the genre in some way.”
I first learned about fact-checking in 2014, when I landed a job at a local news organization. When I began editing, I asked my supervisor if we had a fact-checking protocol. We did not; editors were to rely on the reporters to be accurate. Our job was to ensure the story added up and did not contain copy errors. Of course, we were to check for factual errors as much as we could. But there was no formal system.
This lack of formal fact-checking in the newsroom is not uncommon. This does not mean that news organizations, like the one where I started out, don’t verify the information they report. It does mean approaches to fact-checking, verification, and accuracy vary according to different factors—including resources, newsroom size, and journalistic medium.
Because the practice of fact-checking has grown and evolved in recent decades, journalists working at different types of newsrooms and organizations use the term “fact-check” in different ways.
So, What is Fact-Checking, Anyway?
News organizations disclose little public information about their general editorial processes; when it comes to fact-checking, they tend to disclose even less. As readers and consumers of news, we are left to wonder: What is fact-checking, anyway?
There is a short answer, and a long answer. In this blog post, let’s take a look at the short answer to that question.
Ante- Versus Post- Fact-Checking
There are two main approaches to fact-checking that are most often used today: Ante fact-checking—fact-checking a story before it is published—and post fact-checking—fact-checking a claim that has been made, or a story that has already been published.
Unlike academic professions, journalism lacks the equivalent of or standards such as an Institutional Review Board (IRB). So, while both approaches involve different methodologies, there is no formalized, single system that journalistic institutions must follow when it comes to vetting facts or reporting out a story in general.
As I learned when I began editing, not all media outlets employ ante fact-checking—which incurs the expense of hiring people to review stories, as well as the luxury of time to do the formal review before publication.
The journalistic organizations that do conduct ante fact-checking are typically the large, national ones—and, most often, magazines. Because magazines tend to focus less on breaking news, they are able to set up fact-checking systems independent of the editing process.
Newspapers, however, must publish information more quickly. Some national newspapers do employ fact-checkers, but their jobs tend to look different than those of fact-checkers who work at magazines.
The variation in approach to fact-checking is a result not simply of objective, methodological considerations about how to best arrive at the “Truth,” but of other prosaic concerns, like marketplace pressures and cultural norms.
Post fact-checking is carried out after an article is published or a statement is made. This form of fact-checking has become popular as a mechanism to provide a third-party check of a claim or story. Examples of organizations that engage in post fact-checking are PolitiFact, FactCheck.org, and Snopes.
Fact-checks produced by these organizations typically select a statement or story, and then analyze the degree to which it is true or false. PolitiFact, for example, uses a “Truth-O-Meter” as a measuring system and metaphor, with six possible ratings.
Most post fact-checking operations, whether at journalistic or fact-check-focused organizations, employ similar types of rating systems.
What is Fact-Checking? Beyond the Short Answer
Each approach to fact-checking discussed above has its limitations. For example, post fact-checking is often critiqued as ineffective; once a claim or false story has spread widely, critics claim, the damage is done. Others take issue with the entire epistemology of fact-checking, writ large.
In My Next Blog Post: The Longer Answer to the Question of What Fact-Checking Is
The limits of these approaches to fact-checking bring us to our second blog post next month: the longer, and more complicated answer, to what fact-checking is.