As fact checkers proliferate, where are the policy checkers?

February 2, 2017

The failures of the press in the 2016 election have by now become familiar: an over-emphasis on personality and politics, a lack of detailed coverage of policy, a focus on the controversial and provocative.

These failures were, I believe, fundamentally not the result of any lack of ability or courage on the part of journalists, or even commercial pressures on news organizations. They were rather caused by the lack of a clear and strong model for drawing fair and objective conclusions about the candidates’ policies. Lacking a strong model, journalists desiring to be fair instead fell back on a misguided ideal of “balance,” a confused notion that misled them time after time.

The first two weeks of the new Trump administration have shown the importance of reporting on policy issues, even more than character-related questions of the new president and his team. Policies—whether a Supreme Court pick or a national shift in immigration policy—endure for decades, and are at stake not only in federal elections, but also in state and local elections. And studies over decades have found that presidents have in fact made good faith efforts to put into effect 70 percent of what they promised.

In the 2016 election, policy coverage stands out mainly for its scarcity. According to a study by Thomas Patterson of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, during the month of the conventions only 8 percent of the stories in major newspapers and TV news shows (PBS not included) were on policy issues. For the entire year, the evening news shows of the three major TV networks devoted only 35 stories, about 1 percent of their total airtime, to policy issues, according to television news analyst Andrew Tyndall. When the major media did actually cover policy, it was mainly in the form of negative stories on both sides.

Patterson’s study documents that during the month of the conventions, negative reports on both candidates’ positions outnumbered positive ones  82 percent to 18 percent. As Patterson points out, this misguided “balance” has had the unintended effect of bolstering the right-wing narrative that government can do no good: “For years on end, journalists have told news audiences that political leaders are not to be trusted and that government is inept. …They highlight[ed] the problems and not the success stories. Th[is] creates a seedbed of public anger, misperception, and anxiety—sitting there waiting to be tapped by those who have a stake in directing the public’s wrath at government.” Fair coverage of policy requires reporting on and analysis of government successes, as well as failures.

The sparse coverage and negative both-sidesism left ordinary voters who didn’t seek out more specialized reports no way to rationally assess competing policies. Voters were left on their own to react to sloganeering, name-calling and emotional appeals to grievances, real and imagined.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

What can be done to remedy this serious neglect and mishandling of policy issues? Given the current economic constraints on the news business, a new organization is, I think, the best solution. American journalism needs the help of a (I’ve got the domain name if anyone is interested) or something similar. This new organization would be something like the new fact-check organizations that have arisen in response to fake news, but with a broader mission. Fact-check organizations and divisions focus on correcting errors in specific claims—the who, what, when, and where. Their goal does not include policy analysis, drawing conclusions from the facts about which public policies are best. The mission of this new organization would be to provide a summary of the debate on public policy. It would provide an online, up-to-date, objective briefing book on the state of policy debate. And it would follow the same strong model for drawing objective conclusions as in the hard sciences: to identify crucial or “smoking gun” evidence, which confirms the merits of one policy while refuting rivals. The online briefing book should include:

  • Current evidence on the successes and shortcomings of existing policies
  • Identification of where crucial evidence exists, and where debate is still open
  • Reports on the arguments over open issues and the relevant evidence
  • Reports on the state of expert opinion on open issues

The information on would provide the missing link between expert research in academia, government, and think tanks, on one hand, and political journalists under the pressure of publication deadlines, on the other. With its go-between mission, it would target information most helpful to journalists, so they can report crucial evidence to the public through stories that are topical and emotionally compelling. It would thus greatly lower obstacles to covering policy issues, and facilitate much more extensive and higher quality coverage. Further, for researchers in the social sciences, it would push them to lift their game to meet the higher standard of rigor, of crucial experiments and observations, which characterizes the hard sciences.

Such an organization would need to be a privately funded nonprofit, or funded by a combination of government and private-sector sources, like PBS. And it would need to have an ideologically diverse board. Creating such an institution is a big challenge. But if successful, it would create virtuous circles of better information flow between experts and journalists, experts and politicians, and journalists and the general public. Citizens would be better informed and better understand candidates, public officials, and the public policy issues. The republic will be better for it.

Any takers?

William Berkson is a philosopher who has written on scientific method, including in the social sciences.