Beyond the Facts

A partisan era requires a vigorous press

The voters have seated a new House of Representatives with an agenda dramatically at odds with that of the president, and we’re entering a period in which the partisan divisions that shaped the first half of the Obama administration will play out in a different way. Battles will be waged with the usual weapons—a mix of facts and spin, which can be difficult to tease apart. At stake is the direction of American policy.

What can the press do to be a force for a more productive democratic conversation? PolitiFact—the Pulitzer-winning project of the St. Petersburg Times—has one idea. The project, which has been fact-checking statements by political figures since 2008, is a digital expansion of a more traditional form: newspaper pieces that check the accuracy of political advertisements. But PolitiFact doesn’t fold up its tent after the voting and has continued to stand ready to adjudicate the factual basis of any claim that might cause a typical citizen to ask, “Is that true?” And it’s expanding. PolitiFact has franchised local versions in eight states, overseen by local newspapers. We’re all for it.

Still, while PolitiFact and its Truth-O-Meter produce eye-catching accountability journalism, in some ways it’s also a symptom of how journalism has lost its way. The work it specializes in ought to be the task of every reporter on every beat. It shouldn’t be confined to a special team.

Too many reporters hack their way past policy debates by simply quoting political actors on each side, without making an effort to track down the facts, examine the logic, and flesh out the context. A twisted idea of fairness, combined with simple laziness, ends up obscuring issues, making them boring and complicated rather than big and vital.

A “pants on fire” rating on the Truth-O-Meter may help clean up political discourse, but such weapons are limited. One can mislead without betraying a carefully constructed set of facts. While the Truth-O-Meter’s middle regions capture some of this nuance, pushing for intellectual honesty in political debate requires verdicts and explanations that cannot always be mapped along a true/false continuum.

That calls for another kind of accountability journalism, one that tests arguments and rhetoric and simply explains things. In many cases, doing this well is no different than covering policy debates well—talking to experts, finding the numbers, laying it all out. Journalists who work like this try to make their stories comprehensive, and as comprehensible as a needle on the Truth-O-Meter. There’s an old set of tools at the ready—kitchen table reporting with ordinary people, narrative that presents policy in human terms, series that present information in digestible chunks.

PolitiFact’s Internet heritage points to the promise of new tools, too. Take, for example, The New York Times’s online “Budget Puzzle: You Fix the Budget,” which in November, as Obama’s deficit commission finished up, allowed readers to try to bring the projected 2015 and 2030 deficits into line by selecting from a menu of options of program cuts, tax hikes, and reforms. Popular spending bogeymen—foreign aid, government waste—were revealed as adding up to little more than rounding errors. Among other things, the interactive graphic showed how difficult it would be to hit the numbers without some increase in taxation. It also showed, while not a popular option in some circles, that no cuts to government-provided retirement and health benefits are necessary if you are willing to cut elsewhere (the military, maybe) and impose or reinstate some taxes, mostly on high incomes.

Readers ate it up. The graphic got 1.36 million page views, the Times’s David Leonhardt tells us, and 13,000 tweets, more than any Times story yet. It wasn’t the last word on the budget, and its easy interface obscured all the hard work behind it. But it did what’s required of the best policy journalism: it gave citizens a way to get at elusive truths.

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.