Few voters pay attention to new breed of fact-checkers

Reuters

Members of the media watch the presidential debates in the press room at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire January 7, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • Do Americans want journalists to assess the accuracy of debate claims, candidate speeches and TV ads?

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  • The media’s job used to be to report the news – who, what, when, and where.

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  • Fact checkers seem to believe that factual information is the be all and end all in terms of public judgment. It’s not.

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WASHINGTON -- Fact-checkers from Politifact, FactCheck.org, and The Washington Post's Fact Checker blog were out in force after the first two debates as they have been for much of the 2012 campaign season. Do Americans want journalists to assess the accuracy of debate claims, candidate speeches and TV ads?

Brooks Jackson, who heads FactCheck.org thinks so. He was quoted recently as saying: "In an age where the typical citizen is subjected to an avalanche of the kind of pure baloney that journalists used to keep out of the public discourse ... they are looking for journalists to be kind of adjudicators or referees. That's what we try to do."

The media's job used to be to report the news - who, what, when and where. Their new role as adjudicators extends their warrant at a time when skepticism of the media is already sky high.

In a September Gallup poll, 60 percent said they had either "not very much trust or confidence" or "no trust at all" in the media to report the news "fully, accurately or fairly."

It's far from clear that Americans want the media to go into the uncharted waters of assessing candidate claims and counterclaims. A new poll from Annenberg suggests that around 9 percent of respondents have reported visiting a fact-checking site.

But a second and more fundamental reason for skepticism about the rationale for fact-checking operations is that they misunderstand how most Americans make decisions. I don't know about you, but I haven't read yet alone fully digested the 2,000 plus page Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act or listened to Fed chair Ben Bernanke's four-part lecture series about the Fed and the financial crisis.

"Fact checkers seem to believe that factual information is the be all and end all in terms of public judgment. It's not." -Karlyn BowmanNor have I spent hours on the candidates' websites reading the fine details of their approaches to corporate taxation. Like most people, I suspect, I have general impressions of the candidates and their claims based on what they say themselves and on news reports.

Fact checkers seem to believe that factual information is the be all and end all in terms of public judgment. It's not.

Here I am indebted to the great social scientist Daniel Yankelovich who wrote an essay about this years ago. While he wasn't writing about fact-checking operations, his observations have broad application.

Yankelovich argued that journalists are the "chief drumbeaters for the importance of factual information."

It's not unimportant, of course, but it is not, in Yankelovich's words, the "royal road to public judgment." He says that people form their opinions by weighing "what they hear from others against their own convictions. They compare notes with each other, they assess the views of others in terms of what makes sense to them, and about all they consult their feelings and values.

The public doesn't distinguish between facts and values as journalists and social scientists do." Yankelovich believes the public's way of knowing has great validity for the important questions of our time.

Fact-checking fervor from news organizations is unlikely to have much impact on the credibility of journalism or on the public. The American people, without the assistance of fact-checkers, have a pretty good track record of arriving at sound judgments about who their presidents should be.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin. Readers may write to her at AEI, 1150 17th Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20036; website: www.aei.org.

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