The future of factchecking

Here's what journalists should learn from the 2012 campaign

As journalists close the books on 2012 and look forward to coverage of a second Obama administration, one important question is where the factchecking movement goes from here.

The general election campaign was unquestionably the most intensively factchecked in history. While factchecking did not eliminate falsehoods from our politics, this was always an unrealistic expectation. The relevant question is whether politicians were more careful, and voters better informed, than they would have been without factchecking. By that standard, the expansion of factchecking seems likely to have had a positive effect.

Given these successes, many observers hope the media will continue to increase the resources and attention given to factchecking in the future. In an interview with New York Times reporter Brian Stelter, for instance, NYU professor and media critic Jay Rosen suggested CNN should “declare jihad on the talking points” and prominently feature “on-air fact-checking”:

“They [CNN] don’t want to be Fox and they don’t want to be MSNBC. Fine. But ‘neither nor’ is not an identity,” said the New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen. “It can’t tell you what talent to hire, or what programs to try. They keep circling around the answer: declare jihad on the talking points and make that your identity, along with on-air fact-checking.”

Any further expansion of factchecking—whether as the new brand of a cable news network or in other print or broadcast outlets—faces significant challenges, however. First, continued changes are needed in journalistic norms that encourage “he said,” “she said” reporting of bogus claims and strategy-focused coverage of factual disputes.

Outlets must also learn to overcome the controversies and frictions that factchecking inevitably creates, which tend to help keep the status quo in place. At the elite level, for instance, the increased salience of factchecking during this electoral cycle generated unprecedented pushback, ranging from an 86-page dossier on Politifact Virginia released by the state GOP to repeated on-air attacks on PolitiFact by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. Some of these complaints had merit—like other journalists, factcheckers sometimes make mistakes and demonstrate poor judgment—but the criticisms often appear driven in part by partisan or ideological considerations.

Media outlets will also have to learn how to tolerate objections from their audience. Most people like the idea of challenging talking points and factchecking in the abstract, but protest when their side gets criticized—a factor that unfortunately creates commercial incentives to avoid aggressive factchecking.

Given the energy and enthusiasm behind the factchecking movement, it is likely that these challenges can be at least partially overcome. The criteria for success, though, should not be the addition of more specialized factcheckers or the production of more factchecking articles and TV segments. Dedicated factcheckers like PolitiFact and play a critical role, but we will know that factchecking has succeeded in changing American political journalism when it disappears as a specialized function. The process of factchecking needs to be integrated into political coverage, not ghettoized in sidebars and online features. If more reporters adopt best practices for covering misinformation (including exercising discretion in not fact-checking some statements), politicians and other public figures could face even more effective scrutiny in 2013 and beyond.

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