Fact checking is the act of checking factual assertions in non-fictional text in order to determine the veracity and correctness of the factual statements in the text. This may be done either before (ante hoc) or after (post hoc) the text has been published or otherwise disseminated.
Fact checking before dissemination (ante hoc checking) aims to remove errors and allow text to proceed to dissemination (or to rejection if it fails confirmations or other criteria). Post hoc checking most often is followed by a written report of inaccuracies, sometimes with a visual metric from the checking organization (e.g., Pinocchios from The Washington Post Fact Checker, or TRUTH-O-METER ratings from PolitiFact). The aim for ante hoc analyzed text is often external publication, as in journalistic endeavors. Several organizations are devoted to post hoc fact-checking, including FactCheck, PolitiFact, and NewsTrust's Truth Squad.
Fact checking organizations may not arrive at a consensus regarding accuracy. Research support the notion that more than one such fact checking source needs be consulted, to arrive at a consensus of opinion on statements being checked.
Studies of post hoc fact checking have made clear that such efforts often result in changes in the behavior, in general, of both the speaker (making them more careful in their pronouncements) and of the listener or reader (making them more discerning with regard to the factual accuracy of content); observations include the propensities of audiences to be completely unswayed by corrections to errors regarding the most divisive subjects, or the tendency to be more greatly persuaded by corrections of negative reporting (e.g., "attack ads"), and to see minds changed only when the individual in error was someone reasonably like-minded to begin with.
A 2015 experimental study found that fact-checking might help improve political discourse by increasing the reputational costs or risks of spreading misinformation for political elites. The researchers sent "a series of letters about the risks to their reputation and electoral security if they were caught making questionable statements. The legislators who were sent these letters were substantially less likely to receive a negative fact-checking rating or to have their accuracy questioned publicly, suggesting that fact-checking can reduce inaccuracy when it poses a salient threat."
A 2016 study found little evidence for the "backfire effect" (correcting false information may make partisan individuals cling more strongly to their views): "By and large, citizens heed factual information, even when such information challenges their partisan and ideological commitments."
A study of Trump supporters during the 2016 race similarly found little evidence for the backfire effect: "When respondents read a news article about Mr. Trump’s speech that included F.B.I. statistics indicating that crime had “fallen dramatically and consistently over time,” their misperceptions about crime declined compared with those who saw a version of the article that omitted corrective information (though misperceptions persisted among a sizable minority)."
Benefits and controversies
Among the benefits of printing only checked copy is that it averts serious, sometimes costly, problems, e.g. lawsuits and discreditation. Fact checkers are primarily useful in catching accidental mistakes; they are not guaranteed safeguards against those who wish to commit journalistic frauds
The possible societal benefit of honing the fundamental skill of fact checking has been noted in a round table discussion by Moshe Benovitz, who observes that "modern students use their wireless worlds to augment skepticism and to reject dogma," but goes on to argue that this has positive implications for values development. He argues:
"We can encourage our students to embrace information and vigorously pursue accuracy and veracity. Fact checking can become a learned skill, and technology can be harnessed in a way that makes it second nature… By finding opportunities to integrate technology into learning, students will automatically sense the beautiful blending of… their cyber… [and non-virtual worlds]. Instead of two spheres coexisting uneasily and warily orbiting one another, there is a valuable experience of synthesis…".
He closes, noting that this constitutes "new opportunities for students to contribute to the discussion like never before, inserting technology positively into academic settings" (rather than it being seen as purely as agent of distraction).
Controversies and criticism
One journalistic controversy is that of admitted and disgraced reporter and plagiarist Stephen Glass, who began his journalism career as a fact-checker. The fact checkers at The New Republic and other weeklies for which he worked never flagged the numerous fictions in Glass's reporting. Michael Kelly, who edited some of Glass's concocted stories, blamed himself, rather than the fact-checkers, saying: "Any fact-checking system is built on trust ... If a reporter is willing to fake notes, it defeats the system. Anyway, the real vetting system is not fact-checking but the editor."
Political fact-checking is often criticized as being opinion journalism. Morgan Marietta, David C. Barker and Todd Bowser examined published fact-checks in a number of different areas, and found "substantial differences in the questions asked and the answers offered". They concluded that this limited the "usefulness of fact-checking for citizens trying to decide which version of disputed realities to believe."
In September 2016, a Rasmussen Reports national telephone and online survey found that "just 29% of all Likely U.S. Voters trust media fact-checking of candidates’ comments. Sixty-two percent (62%) believe instead that news organizations skew the facts to help candidates they support."
Organizations and individuals
The Reporters’ Lab at Duke University maintains a database managed by Mark Stencel and Bill Adair of fact checking organizations. The database tracks more than 100 non-partisan organizations around the world. Articles are also examined based upon whether the site examines transparency of sources and methods, tracks political promises, examines all parties and sides, and examines discreet claims and reaches conclusions.
- Africa Check: a South Africa-based organisation checking claims made by public figures in Africa.
- Demagog: joint project in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia (Visegrad Group countries), launched in 2010 in Slovakia and developed in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.
- FactCheckEU.org: Created in January 2014, this is Europe's first "crowd-checking platform… born out of the belief that as the EU becomes ever more integrated it becomes increasingly essential to develop watchdogs capable of monitoring the political debate."
- Full Fact: An independent fact checking organisation based in the UK which aims to "promote accuracy in public debate", launched in 2009.
- The FactCheck blog: A fact checking blog run by the Channel 4 News organization in the U.K.
- Les Décodeurs: French fact-checking blog run by Le Monde.
- Pagella Politica: an Italian fact-checking website.
- Argentina: Chequeado.com
- Brazil: Aos Fatos
- Chile: Del dicho al hecho
- Uruguay: UYcheck
- Central America: Rete al candidato: Rete al candidato is the first political fact checking digital platform in Central America. It is based in Costa Rica and was launched in 2013 by the weekly newspaper El Financiero to monitor the political debate of the 2014 presidential elections in that country. It is supported by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.
- FactCheck.org and FactCheckEd.org: non-partisan, nonprofit sister websites that are self-described "'advocates for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics," and serving as an educational resource for high school teachers and students, respectively (the latter founded 2005). They are projects of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, and are funded primarily by the Annenberg Foundation.
- Fact Checker (The Washington Post): A project of The Washington Post, known for grading politicians on the factual accuracy of their statements with one to four "Pinocchios." Created September 2007 by Post diplomatic writer Michael Dobbs specifically for the 2008 presidential campaign. Ceased operation November 4, 2008, but relaunched with a broader focus in January 2011, led by veteran Washington Post diplomatic correspondent Glenn Kessler.
- PolitiFact.com: A service of the Tampa Bay Times - Created August 2007, uses the "Truth-o-Meter" to rank the amount of truth in public persons' statements. 2009 Pulitzer Prize Winner.
- Snopes.com focuses on, but is not limited to, validating and debunking urban legends and other stories in American popular culture.
- TruthOrFiction.com validates and debunks urban legends, Internet rumors, e-mail forwards, and other stories of unknown or questionable origin.
- Sarah Harrison Smith spent some time and also headed the fact checking department for the New York Times. She is the author of the book, The Fact Checker's Bible.
- Jim Fingal worked for several years as a fact-checker at The Believer and McSweeney's and is co-author with John D'Agata of The Lifespan of a Fact which is an inside look of a battle between himself as fact-checker and author D'Agata regarding one of his essays that pushes the limits of "artistic license" that is acceptable of a non-fiction work.
Alumni of the role
The following is a list of individuals for whom it has been reported, reliably, that they have played such a fact checking role at some point in their careers, often as a stepping point to other journalistic endeavors, or to an independent writing career.
- Susan Choi – American novelist
- Anderson Cooper – Television anchorman.
- Esther Dyson – technologist
- Nancy Franklin – New Yorker staff writer
- William Gaddis – American novelist
- Virginia Heffernan – New York Times television critic
- Roger Hodge – Former editor, Harper's Magazine
- David D. Kirkpatrick – New York Times reporter
- Daniel Menaker – Former editor-in-chief at Random House
- David Rees – cartoonist
- Sean Wilsey – McSweeney's Editor and memoirist
- Silverman, Craig (23 October 2007). Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute The Press And Imperil Free Speech. Penguin Canada. ISBN 9780143186991.
- Amazeen, Michelle (2015) "Monkey Cage: Sometimes political fact-checking works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Here’s what can make the difference.," The Washington Post (online), June 3, 2015, see, accessed 27 July 2015.
- Davis, Katy (2012) "Study: Fact-checkers disagree on who lies most," The Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA), George Mason University (online, press release), October 22, 2012 see,
- Lewis-Kraus, Gideon (2012) "RIFF: The fact-checker versus the fabulist," The New York Times Magazine (online), February 21, 2012 [print edition, February 26, 2012, p. MM45, title, "I Have Taken Some Liberties"), see,(subscription required) accessed 27 July 2015.
- Heffernan, Virginia (2010) "The Medium: What 'fact-checking' means online," The New York Times Magazine (online), August 20, 2010 [print edition, August 22, 2010, p. MM14). Accessed 27 July 2015.
- Silverman, Craig (2010) "Top fact checkers and news accuracy experts gather in Germany," Regret the Error (online), September 4, 2010, see , accessed 28 July 2015. Cited by Tobias Reitz & Kersten Alexander Riechers (2011) Quo vadis Qualitätssicherung? Corrigo, Konzeption eines Crowdsourced Media Accountability Services," p. 151, Fachbereich Media, May 31, 2011 (Hochschule Darmstadt, University of Applied Sciences), see , accessed 28 July 2015.
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- Amazeen, Michelle (2015) "Monkey Cage: Sometimes political fact-checking works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Here’s what can make the difference.," The Washington Post (online), June 3, 2015, see , accessed 27 July 2015.
- Davis, Katy (2012) "Study: Fact-checkers disagree on who lies most," The Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA), George Mason University (online, press release), October 22, 2012 see , accessed 27 July 2015.
- Nyhan, Brendan; Reifler, Jason (2015-07-01). "The Effect of Fact-Checking on Elites: A Field Experiment on U.S. State Legislators". American Journal of Political Science. 59 (3): 628–640. doi:10.1111/ajps.12162. ISSN 1540-5907.
- Wood, Thomas; Porter, Ethan (2016-08-05). "The Elusive Backfire Effect: Mass Attitudes' Steadfast Factual Adherence". Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network.
- Nyhan, Brendan (2016-11-05). "Fact-Checking Can Change Views? We Rate That as Mostly True". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-11-05.
- Moshe Benovitz et al., 2012, "Education: The Social Media Revolution: What Does It Mean for Our Children?" Jewish Action (online), August 24, 2012, New York, NY, USA:Orthodox Union, see , accessed 28 July 2015.
- Dowd, Ann Reilly (1998). "The Great Pretender: How a Writer Fooled His Readers". Columbia Journalism Review. Archived from the original on February 15, 2004. Retrieved August 28, 2015.
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- Marietta, Morgan; Barker, David C.; Bowser, Todd (2015). "Fact-Checking Polarized Politics: Does The Fact-Check Industry Provide Consistent Guidance on Disputed Realities?" (PDF). The Forum. 13: 577. Retrieved 27 September 2016.
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- Lyman, Rick (2013-07-23). "Nonpartisan Fact-Checking Comes to South Africa". NYTimes.com. Retrieved 2 August 2013.
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- "The FactCheck Blog". Channel 4. 2012-02-15. Retrieved 2012-02-15.
- "Fact-checking blogs turn up heat on French candidates". France 24. Retrieved 2 August 2013.
- "Italian politics: Pinocchio's heirs". The Economist. 2013-02-22. Retrieved 2 August 2013.
- "Chequeado.com: Fiel defensor de los hechos". Lanacion.com. Retrieved 2 August 2013.
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- "El Financiero lanzó aplicación para retar a los candidatos presidenciales". elfinancierocr.com. Retrieved 17 March 2014.
- "About Us". FactCheckED.org. Retrieved 28 July 2015.
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- "St. Petersburg Times Online". Politifact.com. Retrieved 2009-06-07.
- An Interview With Susan Choi at the Wayback Machine (archived February 18, 2001)
- "CNN.com – Transcripts". Transcripts.cnn.com. 2006-06-01. Retrieved 2011-10-18.
- Contributors at the Wayback Machine (archived March 19, 2006)
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- Amazeen, Michelle (2012-12-14). "Sometimes political fact-checking works. Sometimes it doesn't. Here's what can make the difference.". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2015-07-28.
- Study: Fact-Checkers Disagree on Who Lies Most at the Wayback Machine (archived March 9, 2015). Accessed 28 July 2015.
- Lewis-Kraus, Gideon (2012-02-21). "The Fact-Checker Versus the Fabulist". The New York Times. Retrieved 2015-08-26.