When factcheckers get trigger-happy

A checklist to help journalists decide when to take aim

Is there such a thing as too much factchecking? Factcheck.org described former President Bill Clinton’s speech to the Democratic convention Wednesday evening as a “fact-checker’s nightmare” in part because, “with few exceptions… his stats checked out.” Rather than concede that it had little material to work with, however, The Associated Press manufactured a “fact check” of Clinton that focused far too heavily on omitted context and possible counter-arguments to his opinions rather than untruths or errors—and even managed to work in a gratuitous Monica Lewinsky reference that invoked Clinton’s reputation for factual slipperiness.

Journalists have also struggled to define an appropriate standard for factchecking in the case of Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP vice presidential nominee. Significant portions of Ryan’s speech to the Republican convention last week were condemned as misleading by the press, creating a new focus on the honesty of a politician who was previously viewed by many commentators as a courageous truth-teller. The focus on Ryan’s misleading statements about policy was laudable, but it had perverse consequences—a disproportionate amount of coverage devoted to the news that Ryan had misstated his marathon time.

The turn toward narrative-driven nitpicking of Ryan worsened this week when The Washington Post ran a pedantic feature about the charges against him. As political scientist (and Post contributor) Jonathan Bernstein pointed out on his personal blog, the Post article devotes far too much attention to minor factual discrepancies that seem to be news only because Ryan’s honesty is now in question—a pattern that recalls reporters’ treatment of Al Gore in 2000. As Bernstein writes:

the first specific alleged factual error that Ryan is accused of in the story doesn’t show up until the 7th paragraph, and it’s an entirely trivial question about where Ronald Reagan asked “are you better?” Apparently Ryan set it at Reagan’s convention and not at a debate, where it belongs. Then in the 9th paragraph we get the marathon time question—again, totally trivial. The 10th paragraph has a slightly less trivial question about whether Ryan supported stimulus funds in his district. Note that this one is more of a hypocrisy charge than one of factual error. That’s typical; once the reporters choose a frame, everything suddenly is presented as evidence of it, just as an error in 2000 would have been an example of stupidity for George W. Bush but lying for Al Gore.

The debate over Ryan’s recreational habits became even more inane yesterday when The Atlantic’s James Fallows published reader speculation that Ryan was lying back in April 2009 about his record of climbing mountains with 14,000-foot elevations in Colorado—a claim that was both trivial and apparently wrong.

These problems are unfortunately not new, particularly in factchecks of highly controversial figures like Clinton, Ryan, Sarah Palin, and Michael Moore. The current expectation that factchecks should be produced after every major political event—and that they should find falsehoods to expose—too often leads journalists to try to fit critiques of one-sided rhetoric into that template. At the same time, the narrative-driven and character-based pathologies of political journalism can infect factchecking, producing an excessive focus on trivial issues and pedantic criticism when it fits a prevailing media storyline.

So where should reporters and factcheckers draw the line in selecting claims for scrutiny? Here are a few simple questions that journalists can ask themselves:

• First, is the claim newsworthy simply because of who made it? Ryan’s marathon claims were news only because of who he is and the coverage that his convention speech attracted. No one is investigating whether other members of Congress are misstating, say, their high school sports exploits.

• Second, was the statement likely to be misleading to a listener or reader? Providing context and describing counter-arguments can be a useful component of journalism, but it is not a “factcheck.” (Admittedly, there is some gray area here, but too many articles stretch the term “factcheck” beyond any reasonable meaning.)

• Third, how many people were exposed to the claim? The importance of factchecking convention speeches and frequently-aired campaign ads is much greater than one-off verbal slip-ups at local campaign events.

• Finally, does the statement concern a matter of public importance? Politicians’ personal lives are not irrelevant, but it’s hard to see how Paul Ryan’s exaggeration of his abilities as a runner helps anyone assess his fitness for the vice presidency.

As factchecking moves closer to the journalistic mainstream, it’s important that journalists are careful in what they label as “factchecks” and what statements they choose to scrutinize. Otherwise, the media could dilute and devalue a practice that should be an important part of campaign coverage.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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