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The Truth about Public Untruths

Are journalists and others equipped to beat back the lies?
December 2, 2011

What’s to be done with lying liars and the lies they tell journalists and the public?

This is a topic of serious discussion in journalism circles, perhaps now more than ever. I say that with the knowledge that two years ago I wrote a column that declared, “We are in the midst of a blossoming of new forms of fact checking, particularly those that rely on crowdsourcing.”

Perhaps I was a bit ahead of the curve—or, you know, wrong.

In truth, I’d rather have written that sentence this week, given the recent momentum for fact checking, and what we can expect for 2012.

Two weeks ago I flew to New York to take part in a November 15 gathering focused on fact checking. The event was organized by Jeff Jarvis and the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, in conjunction with Craig Newmark (aka Mr. Craigslist). It brought together people from, PolitiFact, Retraction Watch, NBC News, the Public Insight Network, the Sunlight Foundation, and other groups, organizations, and people working in this area.

I kicked things off by giving a brief look at the history and current state of fact checking. Here are my slides, which offer a decent amount of detail, even without the accompanying narration:

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Jarvis also wrote a good round up of the discussion that ensued. He included some points made by NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen:

Supply of disinformation: Jay Rosen argued that we are seeing a disturbing trend in “verification in reverse:” taking a fact and unmaking it, until people don’t believe it anymore. He cited the birthers and climate-change deniers as well as Mitt Romney’s much-fact-checked and debunked campaign commercial. He said there is a growing supply of “public untruths.” He argued: “Verification in reverse should be a beat… We have to start ranking public untruths by their seriousness and spread — we have to start IDing the ones that are out there and influencing public conversation, even though they’re already being fact-checking… We have to start acknowledging what’s going on with systematically distorting truth…”

The concept of public untruths seemed to resonate with everyone in the room. Rosen offered the important caution that public fact checking as it currently exists—an often dispassionate recitation of the facts, with some kind of verdict—is not enough to counteract the concerted efforts to foist untruths upon the public.

The truth about public untruths is there’s a lot of money and effort behind them. That now-infamous Romney ad is a minute long and it probably cost a lot more than what PolitiFact pays a reporter for a year. (That’s a guess; anyone care to fact check it?)

In the battle of public untruths versus fact checking, the forces of untruth have more money, more people, and, I would argue, much better expertise. They know how to birth and spread a lie better than we know how to debunk one. They are more creative about it, and, by the very nature of what they’re doing, they aren’t constrained by ethics or professional standards. Advantage, liars.

With a presidential election year about to kick off, the best minds in the area of public untruths are squaring off to out-Swift Boat each other, or to work in concert and go after common opponents.

Are journalists and other interested parties equipped to beat back the lies? Will things be any different, now that PolitFact is franchising itself to different states and, as detailed in my slides, there are new tools and projects aimed at helping sniff out and expose misinformation?

I’ll say this: in the close to decade I have been tracking and reporting on accuracy and fact checking I’ve never seen more smart and talented people interested in fact checking. I’ve never seen more money and organizations lining up on the side of the debunkers. All of these things were reinforced at the CUNY event, and in the weeks since.

For example, this past weekend I was at home listening to CBC Radio when I suddenly heard a familiar voice. It belonged to Dan Schultz, one of the attendees of the New York event. Schultz, whom I edited when I was managing editor of PBS MediaShift and Idea Lab, is a MIT Media Lab student working on a project called Truth Goggles. Nieman Journalism Lab wrote about the project last week, describing it as “software that flags suspicious claims in news articles and helps readers determine their truthiness.” (Note that the software doesn’t actually exist yet.)

Schultz is one of the aforementioned smart people now interested in the challenge of falsehoods and misinformation, and the promise of fact checking.

This week the fact checking news kept coming. The Nieman Watchdog Project published a story that looked at what journalists who should do when politicians lie. Here at CJR, Brendan Nyhan examined ways journalists can do a better job debunking falsehoods. (I dedicated two recent columns (1, 2) to the challenge of combating misinformation. One of those columns looks at research done by Nyhan and his colleague, Jason Reifler.)

As if that wasn’t enough, an e-mail written by Craig Newmark and sent to participants of the CUNY event was published by Jim Romenesko on his new site. Newmark laid out his vision of what a new cooperative fact checking initiative might look like. He sees it as marrying some of the work of the Center for Public Integrity with the Public Insight Network and the work being done by places like PolitiFact and, among others. (He also name checked Truth Goggles and a new project,

As if that weren’t enough, the march towards fact checking continues in a couple of weeks when I fly to Washington to take part on a one day event about checking hosted by the New America Foundation.

Yes, fact checking is on fire!

Well, hold on. I’m going to be a little more cautious than I was two years ago, and acknowledge that what we have right now is a lot of discussion and enthusiasm and new projects. But very little new checking… yet.

The tools and technologies listed on slide 10 in my presentation are all new. Some have yet to launch.

Craig Newmark seems committed to helping establish new pro-am networks of fact checking, and my sense is he is willing to provide some financing to do it. This is new and important, and I hope it takes shape soon.

There are many things that make me feel positive about how we might find new ways to combat misinformation in 2012. We have more people, organizations, funders, technologies and technologists focused on the challenge. There is also a growing sentiment within in journalism that it’s time to stop allowing falseshoods to stand without challenge, or to quote people spreading lies just because they represent the ”other side”.

I feel encouraged and energized about what the next twelve months might bring.

But then I look on the other side and I see coordinated e-mail campaigns to spread lies; I see political pros investing money and expertise in creating falsehoods and injecting them into the public sphere via the Internet, TV, radio, and other mediums. I see people with a big head-start.

One of the things that blunts the effectiveness of journalistic checking is that we refuse to engage with the level of passion and determination of those who create and propagate public untruths. True progress will require a tougher attitude, a willingness to aggressively call bullshit. We also need to study the dark arts of public untruths and reverse engineer them with the same level of calculation and ferocity.

Are we up for that? I have my doubts, but I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and throw a few punches.


On that note, it’s time to share that I won’t be throwing any haymakers or slinging new opinions here on After a little more than three years, this is the final edition of my weekly column. I’m grateful to my editor Justin Peters, who has been wonderful to work with, and a real champion of the column. Mike Hoyt and the other great folks at CJR have also been incredibly supportive and kind. I’ll miss them.

Why is this column ending? Yeah, I guess I buried the lead. I will be taking my work to a new home soon as part of a larger announcement regarding my site, Regret the Error. Watch that URL for the news.

Finally, thanks to all of you who sent feedback and added comments on these columns. You made my work better, and you also did a bang-up job of helping spot my mistakes.


Correction of the Week

In the Thursday edition of The Greenville News, someone added a vulgar word to a wire story inside the Sports section. We are saddened by this and assure everyone that we will deal appropriately with it. We apologize to our readers and the reporter whose name appeared over the story. — The Greenville News

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