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Hans Peter Ibold: Yes, fact-checking lends credibility to journalism

Published: Sunday, Oct. 21 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., speaks to reporters in the media filing room ahead of the second presidential debate at Hofstra University, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012, Hempstead, N.Y.
 (Associated Press) Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., speaks to reporters in the media filing room ahead of the second presidential debate at Hofstra University, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012, Hempstead, N.Y. (Associated Press)

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Journalists who verify the assertions of public officials are doing their jobs and supporting democracy. Seems like a well-worn truism, right?

False. This column joins a firestorm of recent comment on "the fact-checking thing."

A public editor columnist, Arthur Brisbane, went viral at the start of the year, in part, because of its quirky request: "I'm looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge 'facts' that are asserted by newsmakers."

Press and blogs lit up in response, answering Brisbane with what seemed like a murmuring "huh?" followed mostly by indignation.

That was just one of many quibbles with what has lately been dubbed the "fact-checking movement" and the "Golden Age of fact-checking."

Curiously, what everyone is calling "fact-checking" isn't new. Fact-checking has always been fundamental to professional news work. Ask any veteran newsroom copy editor.

However, fact-checking does come with a twist today: computational power. Politifact.com, FactCheck.org, and their in-house newsroom cohorts are using powerful, new computer-assisted analytical and visualization software.

All that computational science in the hands of reporters may ring of snooty elitism. For fans of the HBO series "The Wire," it may also conjure the drama's relentless focus on "juking the stats," the idea that facts and statistics can easily be woven into manipulative lies.

Instead, today's fact-checking is teasing out new norms, such as the recent emphasis on transparency. Journalists are asking questions like "What should we fact-check?" And, most legit fact-checking projects include background on how and why the content was fact-checked, as well as any limitations of the approach.

It's no secret that newsrooms need to cultivate new norms. American attitudes toward the news media have sunk to record lows this election season. A recent Gallup poll showed that 60 percent don't trust the media's ability to report news accurately and fairly.

Today's news consumers aren't averse to fact-based reporting. People dislike the news media now because there's a little something out there for everyone to hate.

Gone are the days of a monolithic news media with a monopoly on the truth. New technologies — for better and worse — have enabled just about anyone to discover, create, share, personalize and react to news.

Today's news consumers have gravitated to "news with a view" because it affirms personal values. In an era of information overload, news with a view can be clarifying and familiar.

Sure, it may come with high-octane, unverified assertions, but it's perceived as credible because it comes with an unapologetic view, a person, a Sean Hannity, a Rachel Maddow.

We certainly don't need more personality-driven news, more subjectivity, more emotional appeals, or more "he-said, she-said" journalism. Plenty of that to go around.

Fortunately, the fact-checking process has become a kind of provocateur, agitating debate about what responsible journalism does, doesn't do, should do, shouldn't do. Bring it on!

In the short run, this aggressive, transparent, data-driven political fact-checking may only earn more haters. It may scare off timid advertisers.

In the long run, it will help rouse reporters and reporting processes from sequestered newsrooms. It will lead to more community collaboration, to the defending of old news values that are worth saving and to the invention of pertinent new ones that no one has thought of yet.

This participatory approach to news can build trust in fact-based reporting. And, rest assured, that trust will be needed when "social media fact-checking" kicks into high gear.

Hans Peter Ibold is an assistant professor of journalism at Indiana University.

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