Factchecking made great strides during the 2012 campaign, but were those advances compromised by the pressure to maintain partisan balance?

Two respected Washington think tank scholars say yes. Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, who have recently argued that Republican extremism is to blame for many of the pathologies of Washington, told The Huffington Post’s Dan Froomkin last week that journalistic factchecking of the 2012 campaign may have been counterproductive:

Mann and Ornstein said that in practice, the fact-checkers may have made things worse rather than better.

“We had these little flurries of fact-checking—which I found not worthless, but not a substitute for coherent, serious reporting—and most of the time it just got stuck in the back of a news organization’s output and there was no cost to a candidate of ignoring it,” Mann said.

And then there was this terrible irony: “Fact checkers almost seemed obliged to show some balance in their fact checking.”

“There was some damn good stuff done, and stuff that really did hold Romney to account,” Ornstein said. But no fact-checker intent on “appearing to be utterly straightforward, independent, and without an axe to grind, is going to actually do the job of saying that we’re going to cover 20 fact checks on one side, to three on the other.”

So, Ornstein concluded: “If you looked at where the scales should have been, and where they were, they were weighted. And they weren’t weighted for ideological bias. They were weighted to avoid being charged with ideological bias.”

However, Mann and Ornstein’s factual premise about the factcheckers seems to be flawed. As Mark Hemingway pointed out in The Weekly Standard, PolitiFact actually has tended not to be balanced in the ratings they assign; neither has Glenn Kessler in his Washington Post factchecker column. Both have tended to give more negative ratings to Republicans (and have been accused of having a liberal bias for doing so!). Perhaps Mann and Ornstein believe that accurate factchecking would be even more asymmetric, but their statements suggest incorrectly that the ratings were artificially balanced.

The underlying problem here is the difficulty of definitively establishing which side is “worse” when it comes to taking liberties with the truth. While there are statistical methods we can use to compare polarization in Congressional voting between Republicans and Democrats, it is less clear how to determine whether one side is more irresponsible when it comes to factual accuracy. Some have tried to do so using ratings from the factcheckers. However, the process by which statements are selected to check is not random, so the evidence is only circumstantial—differences in average ratings between the parties don’t necessarily establish that one side is worse. In addition, while the factcheckers work quite hard to apply their ratings consistently, the categories are inherently subjective, which makes it difficult to rely on them as comparable indicators of accuracy. And even if one accepted both the factcheckers’ selection process and their ratings, it would still be reasonable to argue that statements in question and the issues they concern vary in their importance.

More fundamentally, it’s not clear what Froomkin or Mann and Ornstein would want factcheckers to do differently. Specialized factcheckers should not be expected to address the question of which side is generally less accurate—the question is simply beyond the scope of the format, which focuses on assessing the accuracy of discrete statements, not making sweeping generalizations about the state of American politics. Even if the factcheckers agreed with claims like those made by Mann and Ornstein (which they’ve generally disavowed), it’s not clear what they could or should do differently. Factcheckers are being asked to maintain a commitment to following the facts wherever they take them while also maintaining a reputation as non-partisan and fair. Of course, they should be fearless in following the facts in any given case, but focusing on asymmetry would destroy their credibility as honest brokers while adding little to the value of their work. Indeed, it has the power to create perverse incentives—should factcheckers stop factchecking whichever side is less bad at any given moment? Why?

I grappled with all of these issues during my experience from 2001 to 2004 as a co-founder and co-editor of Spinsanity, a non-partisan watchdog of manipulative political rhetoric that was syndicated in Salon and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Our work was scrupulously non-partisan and we were frequently accused, like PolitiFact and the other factcheckers, of ignoring ideological or partisan asymmetries. But we thought our readers were best served by calling out misleading statements wherever we found them rather than trying to make broad distinctions that we could not support in the context of a specific article. We took a different approach in our 2004 book All the President’s Spin: George W. Bush, the Media and the Truth, which allowed us to make a more extensive and detailed non-partisan case for why we thought the Bush administration was the most frequent and effective source of misleading claims in politics at that time (though we concluded by noting how Democrats were seeking to more effectively compete in the arms race of spin).

In this case, the fault is not with the factcheckers but the media more generally, which must seek to avoid ghettoizing assessments of accuracy in factchecking sidebars and online features (Ornstein and Mann are correct on this point). Instead, we should integrate factchecking into the practice of political journalism more generally, which will allow for consideration of broader perspectives on accuracy and polarization than are possible in the factchecking format. (See, for instance, Dana Milbank’s groundbreaking and controversial October 2002 piece in The Washington Post on President Bush’s pattern of misleading statements.) When combined with continued effort to avoid false equivalence and artificial balance, journalists can hopefully account for asymmetry when it exists in a fair way that respects journalistic norms. Most encouragingly, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan responded to Froomkin’s piece with a call for more integration of factchecking into Times journalism and continued movement “away from false equivalence and toward stating established truths and challenging falsehoods whenever possible.” In doing so, journalists can allow for the cases in which Mann and Ornstein’s analysis holds without destroying the value of the factchecking format.

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Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at brendan-nyhan.com and tweets @BrendanNyhan.