the downside of fact checking

The below is an excerpt from my book that seemed relevant to the current moment. It’s presaged by this post from 2012.

Fact-checking during campaigns helps make sure the truth is communicated–but also teaches voters that there is a “right answer” and trains them to listen for true vs. false instead of right vs. wrong.

Alongside civility, the standard that’s been receiving much play recently is sheer truthfulness. Over the past few decades it has become commonplace for candidates, campaigners, and citizens to accuse those they disagree with of lying. A favorite expression in these debates is the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s quip: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” To be sure, candidates and politicians do have a tendency to stretch the truth, so an understanding of the claims they are making and whether these claims are in fact true is very important. The role of the fact-checkers is therefore absolutely crucial — as long as it’s not the primary focus of coverage. Fact-checking has an unintended consequence when it takes over the coverage. Citizens consuming the media don’t just learn the answers, they also learn what questions are worth asking. The obsession with fact-checking teaches citizens that the important thing to pay attention to is truth vs. falsehood, not the matters of moral difference and emphasis that should be at the heart of any major political decision.

In the 2012 presidential campaign, news organizations raced to be first with fact-checking stories after each of the presidential debates, and partisan voters circulated these stories like ammunition in their favor. During one of the debates, the moderator (CNN’s Candy Crowley) corrected Romney’s account of Obama’s portrayal of the attack on a US consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Her decision to intervene with factual information did not shut down the public conversation; rather, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) accused her of going beyond her proper role: “When you have two candidates disagreeing, it’s not the role of the moderator to say, ‘Mr. President, you’re right’ or ‘Gov. Romney, you’re right,'” he said later on CNN.

In a similar vein, late in the election season Republican commentators and pollsters offered many predictions that Romney would win despite widespread polling showing a small but consistent lead for Obama nationally and in most of the “swing states.” Commentators insisted that Romney held enough of a lead with “independent” voters, or that greater enthusiasm among his voters would prove the polls wrong and push the election his way. Of course, they turned out to be incorrect, and perhaps the most famous analyst after the election became Nate Silver, the self-styled statistics geek who writes the website…. After Silver “called” every race correctly, he was hailed as providing a victory for numbers and science, facts over ideological preferences. To some extent, that is correct: Silver’s scientific approach did produce more accurate results than the ideologically tinged preferences of the commentators. But to emphasize the victory for facts is to avoid the reasons behind those facts. Obama won the election because he convinced a majority of voters–nationally and in important states–that his vision and his governing style were better than those offered by Romney. That conviction is not a matter of fact but one of value and opinion. It’s important to keep sight of the fact that political decisions are, in the final analysis, about morality, judgment, and preference, not about facts and truthfulness.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

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