If you smell smoke around Election Day, don’t despair: Chances are it’s just the burning pants of your local legislator.
Despite the rise of independent fact-checking organizations like PolitiFact and Factcheck.org, statements made by politicians at the state level are rarely scrutinized for their accuracy. That’s according to a study released onTuesday by the New America Foundation, a Washington-based public-policy organization. In a sample group of 1,169 legislators, the foundation found that only 23 of those legislators -- a mere 2 percent -- received ratings from PolitiFact affiliates. The researchers called the finding “regrettably rare” given the importance of accuracy and accountability in local elections.
The aim of the study was to examine whether fact-checking, or at least the threat of fact-checking, deters politicians from spreading misinformation in political discourse, particularly discourse at lower levels of government where lawmakers are more likely to fly under the radar. The study was authored by Brendan Nyhan, an assistant professor at Dartmouth College’s Department of Government, and Jason Reifler, a senior lecturer for the University of Exeter’s Department of Politics.
The good news is, the threat of fact-checking does appear to have a positive effect on the truthfulness of politicians. During the 2012 election, the researchers sent letters to some politicians warning them of the “reputational and electoral threats from fact-checking.” Then they compared the behavior of those politicians with that of a group of politicians who were sent placebo letters or no letters at all. The results? Politicians who were reminded about the threat of fact-checking tended to clean up their acts.
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“Our field experiment substantially reduced the likelihood that PolitiFact or other sources would criticize the accuracy of their public statements,” the authors wrote. “These results suggest that the effects of fact-checking extend beyond providing information to motivated citizens who seek out these websites.”
As profits dwindle for traditional news outlets, resources for investigative political journalism have become increasingly scarce. Fact-checkers, consequently, fill an increasingly important void in the fight to keep politicians honest, the authors said.
“Too often, traditional news organizations report what public officials say without evaluating the accuracy of their statements or attempting to arbitrate between competing factual claims,” Nyhan and Reifler wrote. “As a result, political figures are frequently allowed to make misleading comments in the press without challenge. By contrast, fact-checkers carefully scrutinize the claims made by candidates and elected officials and weigh them against the available evidence.”
The prevalence of fact-checkers isn’t without controversy, however. As fact-checking groups have grown in influence so to have they themselves come under more scrutiny. In May, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow heavily criticized PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning initiative run by the Tampa Bay Times, after one of her reports received a “half-true” rating on the group’s signature Truth-O-Meter.
“Until somebody figures out how to sue you to retrieve the meaning of the word ‘fact’ from the dark and airless hole you stuffed it into, then it is not OK to make this stuff up,” Maddow said at the time. “You are truly terrible. Fact-checking has to count for something and PolitiFact, you are ruining it for everyone.”
Read the full report, “The Effects of the Fact-Checking Threat,” here.