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IS THAT A FACT?
BLOOMINGTON, Ind.--Journalists who verify the assertions of public officials are doing their jobs and supporting democracy. Seems like a well-worn truism, right?
Not. This column joins a firestorm of recent comment on "the g--d--- fact-checking thing."
That's how former New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane reminisced about his role in the fact-checking fracas in a recent interview with Poynter.org.
A public editorial column by Brisbane went viral at the start of the year, in part because of its quirky request: "I'm looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge 'facts' that are asserted by news makers."
Press and political blogs lit up in response, answering Brisbane with what seemed like a murmuring "huh?" followed mostly by indignation.
That was just one of many quibbles with what has lately been dubbed the "fact-checking movement" and the "Golden Age of Fact-checking."
Curiously, what everyone is calling "fact-checking" isn't new. Fact-checking has always been fundamental to professional news work. Ask any veteran newsroom copy editor.
However, fact-checking does come with a twist today: computational power. Politifact.com, Factcheck .org, and their in-house newsroom cohorts are using powerful new computer-assisted analytical and visualization software.
All that computational science in the hands of reporters may ring of snooty elitism. For fans of the HBO series "The Wire," it may also conjure the drama's relentless focus on "juking the stats," the idea that facts and statistics can easily be woven into manipulative lies.
Instead, though, today's fact-checking is bringing the public a bit closer to news processes, exposing the purposes, the methods, and even the fallibility of journalism.
Gone are the days of a monolithic news media with a monopoly on the truth. New technologies--for better and worse--have enabled just about anyone to discover, create, share, personalize, and react to news.
Today's news consumers have gravitated to "news with a view" because it affirms personal values. In an era of information overload and complexity, news with a view can be clarifying and familiar.
Sure, it may come with high-octane, unverified assertions, but it's perceived as credible because it comes with an unapologetic view and a person--a Sean Hannity or a Rachel Maddow.
We certainly don't need more personality-driven news, more subjectivity, more emotional appeals,
Fortunately, the fact-checking process has become a kind of provocateur, agitating debate about what responsible journalism does, doesn't do, should do, shouldn't do. Bring it on!
In the short run, this aggressive, transparent, data-driven political fact-checking may only earn more haters. In the long run, it will help rouse reporters and reporting processes from sequestered newsrooms. It will lead to more community collaboration, to the defending of old news values that are worth saving and to the invention of pertinent new ones.
And, rest assured, that trust will be needed when "social media fact-checking" kicks into high gear.
Hans Peter Ibold is an assistant professor of journalism at Indiana University.