What’s to be done with lying liars and the lies they tell journalists and the public?
This is a topic of serious discussion in journalism circles, perhaps now more than ever. I say that with the knowledge that two years ago I wrote a column that declared, “We are in the midst of a blossoming of new forms of fact checking, particularly those that rely on crowdsourcing.”
Perhaps I was a bit ahead of the curve—or, you know, wrong.
In truth, I’d rather have written that sentence this week, given the recent momentum for fact checking, and what we can expect for 2012.
Two weeks ago I flew to New York to take part in a November 15 gathering focused on fact checking. The event was organized by Jeff Jarvis and the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, in conjunction with Craig Newmark (aka Mr. Craigslist). It brought together people from FactCheck.org, PolitiFact, Retraction Watch, NBC News, the Public Insight Network, the Sunlight Foundation, and other groups, organizations, and people working in this area.
I kicked things off by giving a brief look at the history and current state of fact checking. Here are my slides, which offer a decent amount of detail, even without the accompanying narration:
Jarvis also wrote a good round up of the discussion that ensued. He included some points made by NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen:
Supply of disinformation: Jay Rosen argued that we are seeing a disturbing trend in “verification in reverse:” taking a fact and unmaking it, until people don’t believe it anymore. He cited the birthers and climate-change deniers as well as Mitt Romney’s much-fact-checked and debunked campaign commercial. He said there is a growing supply of “public untruths.” He argued: “Verification in reverse should be a beat We have to start ranking public untruths by their seriousness and spread — we have to start IDing the ones that are out there and influencing public conversation, even though they’re already being fact-checking We have to start acknowledging what’s going on with systematically distorting truth ”
The concept of public untruths seemed to resonate with everyone in the room. Rosen offered the important caution that public fact checking as it currently exists—an often dispassionate recitation of the facts, with some kind of verdict—is not enough to counteract the concerted efforts to foist untruths upon the public.
The truth about public untruths is there’s a lot of money and effort behind them. That now-infamous Romney ad is a minute long and it probably cost a lot more than what PolitiFact pays a reporter for a year. (That’s a guess; anyone care to fact check it?)
In the battle of public untruths versus fact checking, the forces of untruth have more money, more people, and, I would argue, much better expertise. They know how to birth and spread a lie better than we know how to debunk one. They are more creative about it, and, by the very nature of what they’re doing, they aren’t constrained by ethics or professional standards. Advantage, liars.
With a presidential election year about to kick off, the best minds in the area of public untruths are squaring off to out-Swift Boat each other, or to work in concert and go after common opponents.
Are journalists and other interested parties equipped to beat back the lies? Will things be any different, now that PolitFact is franchising itself to different states and, as detailed in my slides, there are new tools and projects aimed at helping sniff out and expose misinformation?
I’ll say this: in the close to decade I have been tracking and reporting on accuracy and fact checking I’ve never seen more smart and talented people interested in fact checking. I’ve never seen more money and organizations lining up on the side of the debunkers. All of these things were reinforced at the CUNY event, and in the weeks since.
For example, this past weekend I was at home listening to CBC Radio when I suddenly heard a familiar voice. It belonged to Dan Schultz, one of the attendees of the New York event. Schultz, whom I edited when I was managing editor of PBS MediaShift and Idea Lab, is a MIT Media Lab student working on a project called Truth Goggles. Nieman Journalism Lab wrote about the project last week, describing it as “software that flags suspicious claims in news articles and helps readers determine their truthiness.” (Note that the software doesn’t actually exist yet.)
Schultz is one of the aforementioned smart people now interested in the challenge of falsehoods and misinformation, and the promise of fact checking.