Fact-checking into oblivion, again.

June 10, 2024
Art by Darrel Frost

In the years since Donald Trump ran for office and lodged the term “fake news” in the national consciousness, the press and adjacent fact-checking initiatives have tried to set the record straight. These efforts have waxed and waned, according to an annual Duke University Reporters’ Lab census: in 2015, there were sixty-four active fact-checking projects around the world; by 2021 there were nearly four hundred; since then, per the lab’s most recent report, “Fact-checking’s growth seems to have leveled off.” Perhaps checkers were discouraged by a seeming lack of results: about a third of Americans still think the 2020 election was fraudulent. But now another presidential race is underway, and seems to have brought energy to the cause. Plus, as Claire Wardle, codirector of Brown University’s Information Futures Lab, put it, “In parallel to the public discussion about the threat of disinformation, newsrooms have realized that there is actually a business incentive to build these public verticals.” 

New on the scene is CBS News Confirmed, a unit comprising fact-checkers, data journalists, and reporters focused on disinformation. A show, planned to debut this summer on the CBS online stream, will offer election updates as well as stories of war in Gaza and Ukraine, consumer reports, and cultural news. Deepfakes and AI’s effects on disinformation will be examined closely. “We want to show the process by which we go about verifying things so that audiences can see the care that we take to make sure that what we put on air is real,” Claudia Milne, the senior vice president of standards and practices for CBS News and Stations, said. 

Scripps News is preparing a disinformation desk, which will aim to “help viewers separate fact from fiction.” Linda Pattillo, the deputy managing editor of investigations and global affairs at Scripps, described a segment for which a correspondent looked into instances of deepfake nude pictures of high school students, consulting an expert about photo-altering capabilities and how AI can be used to generate phony images. “I think it will be public service journalism, but bolstered by this transparency of come along with us as we explore this world of disinformation,” Pattillo told me.

These projects join others such as BBC Verify, an initiative started last year that likewise brings behind-the-scenes fact-checking to the fore. In March, the BBC Verify team launched a “content credentials” feature showing how images and videos are evaluated for authenticity. CNN has Daniel Dale, an on-air fact-checker, and Donie O’Sullivan, who covers online misinformation and its influence on American politics. The AP has a vertical called AP Fact Check, which publishes roundups such as “Not Real News: A look at what didn’t happen this week.” NBC runs a social media program called #NBCDebunks. The list goes on. 

Do they expect to win the hearts and minds of fact-and-journalism skeptics? CBS and Scripps both said they are not going after Trump’s base specifically, nor anyone enmeshed in conspiracy. “We strongly believe that our mission is to play the news down the middle,” Pattillo said. Milne told me, “My hope is that if we can be transparent with the audience about how we do what we do, that has the potential to rebuild some trust.” 

It may be more complicated. Whitney Phillips, a professor of digital platforms and media ethics at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, thinks that fact-checking projects such as these can have an adverse effect when trying to reach a wider audience. “Disinformation itself has become kind of a toxic term for a lot of people, because many conservative people and pro-Trump people believe that ‘disinformation’ is code for conservative censorship,” she said. 

Fact-checking initiatives also risk overstating the danger of certain technologies. “There needs to be a real awareness of how to grab audiences’ attention but not do it in a way that actually makes people so scared about what technology can now do that they end up losing trust in everything, including newsrooms,” Wardle said. She advises that newsrooms only set out to verify rumors that have already gone mainstream. “I would like to see them do more prebunking,” she added. “Which is: ‘An election is coming, here’s five types of rumors that we see in every election—and let us tell you how you should be careful if you see them.’” 

At the most basic level, making a display of fact-checking can seem like a gimmick. “Even the line of argumentation that ‘This is our opportunity to tell the truth’ just sounds like ‘Well, it’s an election year, and we’re trying to hold on to market share,’” Phillips said. “You’re a journalist—you should be telling the truth regardless. Why do you need an offset program that is emphasizing truth and transparency in reporting?” And it can be futile: “For the people who might need the most critical kinds of information about whether or not 2020 was stolen, or whether they feel confident in the elections for 2024,” Phillips said, “that is just not something that mainstream journalism is going to be able to solve, because these kinds of efforts have been proven to not penetrate.”

Then again, Wardle sees fact-checking shows serving a purpose beyond the confines of network television: “This is, I think, a traffic move,” she said. “They know that this kind of material does well on social media.” Both Scripps and CBS are planning for the work produced from their checking initiatives to be disseminated on platforms—a boon for brand recognition among young people especially. “It does do a little bit more to help audiences understand the journalistic process,” Wardle said. “But I don’t think they’re converting other audiences that don’t trust them.”

Feven Merid is CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow.