united states project

Does Fact-Checking Work? False Statements are Wrong Metric

By naming and shaming worst offenders, reporters can make a difference
March 30, 2012

Politics today seemingly has more fact-checking than ever before. As a result, reporters are asking a new question: Does fact-checking work?

At the national level, USA Today‘s Martha T. Moore described it as “an article of faith” among fact-checkers that “factually accurate information is something voters want and need, and they provide plenty of it.” Unfortunately, she writes, “[w]hat they can’t seem to do is get politicians to stop saying things that aren’t true.”

In her piece (which quoted me), Moore notes the challenges facing fact-checking organizations confronting politicians like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich who continue to repeat claims that have been rated false or misleading. “Large-scale, repeated misstatements” from both parties “are so persistent they raise the question whether accuracy is valued less than the ability to frame an idea in a pithy, memorable way,” Moore writes. She quotes Rick Tyler, an adviser to the pro-Gingrich super PAC Winning Our Future, who says, “I don’t think [fact-checkers] make a whit’s worth of difference… Millions more people will see the ad than will ever see the political fact check.”

A similar concern was expressed in an analysis piece by Henry J. Gomez titled “Even in an age of fact-check journalism, the political whopper lives” that was published Saturday in The Plain Dealer of Cleveland. As T.C. Brown, CJR’s Ohio Swing States Project correspondent, notes, the piece centers on Ohio Treasurer and GOP Senate candidate Josh Mandel, whom Gomez notes “has received three of PolitiFact Ohio’s seven most recent Pants on Fire rulings.” In total, six of his fourteen rated statements since 2010 “have been deemed Mostly False, False or Pants on Fire.”

“Why do they do it?” Gomez asks. “Those who study politics and communications say the consequences appear to be minimal, at least for the liars.” The article quotes me and other commentators explaining that politicians appear to pay a relatively minor price for false statements. And indeed, when Gomez interviewed Mandel, the candidate “vowed to repeat the assertion ‘again and again’ and said he sees no downside. His claims, he added, are ‘100 percent’ truth.”

So is it the case that fact-checking doesn’t work? It is true that corrective information may not change readers’ minds. My research with Georgia State’s Jason Reifler finds that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the most vulnerable ideological group and can even make them worse (PDF). Other research has reached similarly discouraging conclusions—at this point, we know much more about what journalists should not do than how they can respond effectively to false statements (PDF).

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But while those facts are important for journalists to keep in mind, the question underlying Moore and Gomez’s pieces is somewhat different: Is fact-checking ineffective at deterring false statements by politicians? The short answer: we don’t know. The continued prevalence of political misinformation might suggest that fact-checking movement has failed, but that’s the wrong standard to use. The fact-checking movement arose in response to a seeming increase in misleading statements by media-savvy politicians. How could we expect it to offset the factors (polarization, a PR arms race) that continue to drive that trend?

To accurately estimate the effect of fact-checking, we must instead consider a counterfactual scenario in which there were no fact-checkers but the world was otherwise identical. As I told Moore and Gomez, it’s hard to imagine that the problem of political misinformation wouldn’t be worse in that case.

So fact-checkers should keep their heads up. While a few articles may not make a difference, naming and shaming politicians who repeatedly mislead the public—as The Plain Dealer did with Mandel—can still inflict significant reputational damage over time.

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