Fact checking is a popular sport, both in traditional print newspapers and online. Rather than reading news or opinion, we get something far more pleasing – seeing a politician brought down by a statement that was later proven by a group of writers to be false. Democracy is in action, and we can all feel smug knowing that the most powerful in our society have to be as responsive to the truth as we are.
Or do they? While fact checking is a crucial part of journalism, it should not be narrowed to merely fact checking what people say. That's why this trend of fact-checking websites is starting to alarm me. Neiman Lab quotes researchers at Duke saying that the number of fact check websites has grown even more in the last few months – up to about 89 total, and 64 consistently active (check my facts!)
There is satisfaction in tearing apart a politician's speech and finding gaping holes in it, but we have to be cautious at just how responsive investigative journalism is. Fact checking is a relatively cheap check on power –- it by and large doesn't require interviews, in-depth field work, or long-term commitment of resources. In some cases, a simple Google search is all that is required as proof that a particular statement is off-balance.
Unfortunately, fact checking is also only responsive to the discussions of politicians and business executives, and doesn't go beyond their statements. Like the old Drunkard's Search problem ("why are you searching for your keys at the lamppost?", "because that is where the light is"), fact checking speeches transfers all the power to speakers who can then control what gets debated and what does not. If you don't want anyone to investigate school finances, for instance, simply don't mention it and no one will fact check or investigate it. Journalists are providing no real check on who drives the conversation of the day.
I get worried because fact-checking is economically cheap yet lucrative, since page views are often quite high for these sorts of stories. Voters like the seeming accountability of fact-checking, but don't seem to realize that a fact in a speech is not where power lies. As newsrooms continue to face financial pressure, we need to protect the sort of core investigative work that ensures that media still acts as the fourth branch of government.
Public Domain from Wikipedia