The appearance of three fact-checking sites on the Australian media landscape over the last few months is quite an amazing development.
Fact checking has become what’s known as a ‘vertical’, a niche item on the menu of increasing specialisation that is the hallmark of new media. Just as there are now specialist titles dealing with business and finance, sport, real estate and so on, we now have Politifact Australia, The Conversation’s Election FactCheck site, and a soon-to-be-launched ABC fact-checking site.
Interestingly, the first two of these three are openly offering their work to other media organisations to use. Politifact are doing it via a commercial arrangement with Channel Seven, while Election FactCheck is basically offering its work to any news organisation that wants to use it. The site’s editor, Gay Alcorn, told industry mag Mumbrella: ‘Under The Conversation’s Creative Commons [license] we’re hoping other sites will run the Election FactCheck as well.’
That fact-checking is now being presented as a side-dish rather than an integral part of the normal meal of journalism is a reflection of the gutting of journalism that has occurred over the past decade or so. As Alcorn said on Twitter the other day, ‘Journalists check facts every day. But more are stretched for time now and [the] Internet allows for a dedicated site.’
I suspect the reasons go deeper than this. It isn’t just that journalists no longer have the time and resources to properly fact-check the information they are publishing (and what an admission that is!); it is that they have adopted certain practices as standard that actively mitigate against them presenting the facts.
The most obvious example of what I am talking about is their habit of providing what they call ‘balance’, a practice that often manifests itself in the form of ‘he said/she said’ reporting.
Presenting facts calls for making a judgement, for deciding that one side is telling the truth—dealing in facts—and the other isn’t. Fearful of being accused of bias, journalists and their editors often try and avoid passing judgement on political arguments by presenting the information, not as true or false, but as a battle of competing opinions. They wash their hands of the risky work of judgment and instead merely ‘report’ that this person said this, while his or her opponent said that.
It is this retreat from authority by the mainstream media that has opened up a gap in the market to the fact-checking sites. But note what is likely to happen.
By outsourcing the fact-checking process—the actual judgement—to independent sites, media organisations can now safely report those sites’ findings in the way they report other stories: not as something they themselves have made a judgement about, but as something someone else said. They thus get to keep playing the balance—we are just reporting what the fact-checking site said the facts were—absolving themselves of accusations of bias and outsourcing any blame that arises to others.
Of course, by doing this, they will be undermining the fact-checking process itself. They will be almost by definition turning the facts presented on the fact-checking site into just another opinion, thus undermining its authority and leaving us precisely at the point we were at before the fact-checking sites arose from the ashes of mainstream journalism.
Having said that, I’d still rather that the fact-checking sites existed than that they didn’t. I just think we need to see them as a symptom rather than a cure. Yes, they will help and I wish them well, but they are not solving the underlying problem. They are, in fact, enabling the very disease they are setting out to cure.
We live in world so filled with bullshit, with opinion posing as fact, with what comedian Stephen Colbert has called ‘truthiness’, that there is palpable hunger out there for somebody to step up and say, enough.
What’s more, we live in a world where the authority of key institutions has been undermined to such an extent that people can feel genuinely adrift. Who in their right mind these days would look to the Catholic Church for moral guidance? Who trusts politicians of either side to level with us about their intentions? Who thinks our business leaders are anything other than self-serving rent-seekers? As former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett recently told graduates during a commencement address at a College in California:
We are drowning in partisan rhetoric that is just true enough not to be a lie; in industry-sponsored research; in social media's imitation of human connection; in legalese and corporate double-speak. It infects every facet of public life, corrupting our discourse, wrecking our trust in major institutions, lowering our standards for the truth, making it harder to achieve anything.
And as for the media itself, they have failed us so many times that most of us who pay attention are in despair. As I argue in my forthcoming book, ‘if you relied on the mainstream media for your information on incredibly important issues such as the Iraq War, the events leading up to the global financial crisis, climate change and even media reform—especially if you were part of the vast middle, that part of the audience that only dips in and out of such issues—you would be badly informed. On all of these issues, the mainstream failed in its most basic duty as a provider of information that allows citizens to inform themselves. It found itself captured by various special interests, including the most special one of all, self- interest.’
The rising tide of bullshit lifts all boats, including those of the fact-checking sites. Until we tackle the cause, rather than the symptoms, the best we can hope for is to delay the day on which we all drown.
In other words, until the media does its job properly and puts the fact-checking sites out of business, makes them redundant by once again making fact-checking integral and not peripheral to what they themselves do, we are going to be in trouble.