THE JEENYUS CORNER
The fact-checking ethos suddenly prevalent in American journalism is a necessary but mixed blessing. As one of its intellectual champions, Jay Rosen, has long observed, the press diminishes itself and fails in its commitment to the audience when it uncritically airs all competing claims. It’s inadequate to report, “Candidate A says apples are a fruit, while Candidate B insists that they are a vegetable.” Yet journalists sometimes hide behind the need to remain “objective” in order to avoid doing the hard, potentially controversial work of figuring out the truth.
Fact-checking is nevertheless but one tool in a journalist’s kit. Some disputes are matters of fact; others are matters of opinion. Surveying attempts at fact-checking, I’ve sometimes thought that individual fact-checkers are less adept than they ought to be at discerning the difference. It’s as if they have the urge to weigh in on matters of opinion, sometimes with very persuasive analysis, but are uncomfortable straightforwardly operating in the realm of opinion journalism. So they declare what they’re doing to be “fact-checking” as if to retain the fig-leaf of ostensible neutrality*.
In fact, it’s even more complicated than that.
Good journalism isn’t as easy as deciding that a particular claim is a matter of fact, and giving the answer, because some claims can be technically true but misleading, while other statements are technically false, but not worth nitpicking. As Kevin Drum explained in an excellent item on this subject, journalists are often better off focusing on the degree to which something misleads (for the goal is informing readers, not signaling which pols they should denounce as liars**).
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