behind the news

The New Great American Pastime

It’s fact checking
October 9, 2009

Fact checking, along with its kissing cousin “calling bullshit,” is becoming one of the great American pastimes of the Internet age.

We are in the midst of a blossoming of new forms of fact checking, particularly those that rely on crowdsourcing. This is a crucial addition to the discipline, because the traditional form of fact checking, which was primarily developed and used at American magazines, is declining at a rapid rate. As the professionals are told to pack up their World Almanac and Book of Facts and slouch off to the unemployment office, external groups and individuals are taking up the charge.

At the same time, the term “fact checking” is so popular, and gets thrown around so much, that it’s losing its meaning. People say they’re fact checking a media report when they’re simply disagreeing with it. Major news organizations, caught up in the fact-check frenzy, are also abusing the idea. As noted by the Huffington Post, Mediaite, and a host of other Web sites, we reached a strange milestone this week when CNN dedicated a story to fact checking a comedy sketch from Saturday Night Live. Here’s the video:

James Taranto of The Wall Street Journal was one of many who mocked the CNN segment. He ridiculed Wolf Blitzer’s intro (“How much truth is behind all the laughs? Stand by for our reality check), and echoed other complaints that CNN never saw fit to debunk any SNL sketches about Sarah Palin or John McCain during the campaign. But Taranto could also see an alternate point of view:

There’s another way to look at it, though: If only we’d had CNN and PolitiFact back in the 1970s, we would have known that Gerald Ford wasn’t really as clumsy as Chevy Chase’s portrayal of him, that Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin weren’t really two wild and crazy guys from Czechoslovakia, and that Jane Curtin is not an ignorant slut.

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In the interest of accuracy, lest I become more of a target for my fellow fact hounds, CNN’s story was inspired by an article on PolitiFact, one of the best checking Web sites out there. It was the first to examine the veracity of SNL’s checklist skit.

Fact checking was also given prominence this week when the most celebrated home of the practice was lambasted by Hollywood blogger Nikki Finke. “I found Tad Friend, who covers Hollywood from Brooklyn, easy to manipulate, as was David Remnick, whom I enjoyed bitchslapping throughout but especially during the very slipshod factchecking process,” she wrote about her experience being profiled for The New Yorker. (I detailed other concerns with the magazine’s process in a previous column.)

We shouldn’t be surprised to see fact checking generate so much discussion and dispute. It is a core part of today’s information-at-your-fingertips culture. Fact checking is perfect for the Internet because it can set off a never-ending feedback loop of discussion and commentary.

During last year’s presidential campaign, the networks and major newspapers did their best to offer real-time fact checking during the debates. While they checked the candidates, there were plenty of media monitoring and watchdog sites that checked the press. And for each media monitoring organization out there tracking press coverage, there was another monitor or two, usually from the other side of the political spectrum, that checked the facts gathered by the media monitor. Mix in political operatives, bloggers, and other news organizations that also like to check the checkers, and you have a never-ending cycle of checking, rechecking, and checking what’s been checked. The process of calling bullshit on each other sometimes results in us disappearing up into the very place where our own noxious material originates.

Still, there are manifold benefits to the culture of checking. Aside from providing a measure of accountability, it also enables mass participation and engagement. Those benefits were present in one of the better recent examples of crowdsourced fact checking. As Nancy Nall Derringer described in a story for Slate in 2008, a motivated collection of people helped expose a serial plagiarist working in the White House. Nall Derringer spotted Timothy Goeglein’s first offense, and then readers of hers and other blogs stepped in to provide a whole stack of other examples of theft. From her article:

Saying the news cycle moves at an ever-increasing pace doesn’t even qualify as a cliché anymore. But this felt like a new record. Reporting in one minute, writing in one hour, a whole career undone in one day. Reading the comments piling up on the original post was a surreal experience, as one reader after another checked in with evidence, with links. It was journalism as hive mind. “Everyone wants to play now,” someone wrote after posting a link.

In my book, I devoted one chapter to the history and subsequent decline of professionalized fact checking, and another to the rise of the people I deemed the “new checkers.” The bottom line, I wrote, is that “In this, the age of the fact-checking readers and well-funded media monitors, press outlets that do not dedicate themselves to a high level of accuracy can expect to be called to account.”

The ability to identify errors, engage people in the reporting process, and enable them to contribute in meaningful ways is the true value of the checking obsession. Everybody wants to play, and we should find better ways of bringing them on the field.

Correction of the Week

“Writing from memory in a piece defending his work against critics – Why my book is not sexist, 21 September, page 21, G2 – Stephen Bayley said that he had been accused by the presenter of BBC Woman’s Hour of producing a “coffee-table compendium of filth for perverts”. Jenni Murray has objected that she would never use the word compendium (the same goes for filth). The correct wording of the question she posed in the 9 September programme was: ‘Has he reclaimed images of the female body or produced a coffee-table playground for perverts?’” – The Guardian

Craig Silverman is currently BuzzFeed's media editor, and formerly a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.