Truth-Squadding Mission: It's Vital for News Outlets to Aggressively Call out Presidential Campaigns When They Distort the Truth

By Rieder, Rem | American Journalism Review, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Truth-Squadding Mission: It's Vital for News Outlets to Aggressively Call out Presidential Campaigns When They Distort the Truth


Rieder, Rem, American Journalism Review


Art Brisbane, at the time the New York Times' public editor, started an interesting and sometimes heated discussion in January when he asked in a column if news organizations should aggressively fact-check statements made by newsmakers.

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The nasty and often fact-challenged presidential campaign we are watching makes clear why the answer to that question must be an emphatic "yes."

Months before voters go to the polls, the electorate has been treated to an overwhelming avalanche of advertising and allegations ranging from misleading to flat-out untrue.

That makes it even more important for the news media to push back as hard as they can.

As I've written before, one of the positive developments in journalism has been the rise of the fact-checking movement. For too many years, too much political reportage consisted of Candidate A alleges whatever, Candidate B says there's nothing to it--and then full stop. No sorting it out, no conclusion. 1

The rise of outfits like the Annenberg Public Policy Center's FactCheck.org and the Tampa Bay Times' PolitiFact, which take apart the various assertions and render verdicts on their veracity, has been an enormous step forward. Some individual news outlets like the Washington Post have their own fact-checking operations. And PolitiFact has set up franchises around the country in concert with regional news outlets.

Having a stand-alone judgment is good as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. That's why it's so important to repeat those conclusions in individual news stories every time the charge surfaces.

That's hardly going to blow the half-truths and the no truths out of the water. Often candidates don't let the facts get in the way of a good tactic, and the constant repetition on the air-waves and on the hustings can hammer those false narratives into many minds. Also, in the current hyperpartisan political climate, there is no shortage of people who believe only what their own side is saying.

But in spite of the uphill nature of the struggle, it's vital that news outlets do their best to get the truth out. Despite the brilliant and hilarious obit for "Facts" written by the Chicago Tribune's Rex W. Huppke last April, there are still some people who continue to live in a fact-based universe.

Aren't there?

But there's no overestimating the extent of the problem. Take the Republican charge that President Barack Obama was "gutting" welfare reform by scrapping a provision requiring people receiving welfare to work. The Fact-Checking Triumvirate--FactCheck. …

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