Fact checking effort aims to help readers

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: March 2 2014 | 12:01 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 9:03 am in

By Judi Whetstine

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The Gazette has a Fact Checker team for the 2014 legislative session and elections. It includes reporters Hayley Bruce, Erin Jordan and Brian Morelli supervised by news editor Michael Castranova.

“One of the missions of The Gazette’s Fact Checker is to present information to help readers make up their own minds, which is the mission of newspapers,” Castranova said. He described fact checking as choosing factual claims that are “verifiable through research since the purpose is to check the facts.”

Journalism fact checking had a strong start nationally in 2003 with the rise of FactCheck.org. Brooks Jackson wrote that “the goal is to hold national political candidates accountable for their factual assertions. The goal can’t be to find the truth — that’s a job for philosophers and theologians. We can sort through the factual claims.”

Two issues about fact checking are debated among journalists. First: Do you fact check to determine the facts or to find the truth of a candidate’s position?

In October 2012, journalism professor Clay Shirky said during a forum that “when anyone can say anything they like, we can’t even pretend most of us agree on the truth of most assertions any more. Journalists can no longer identify truth by looking for consensus and must tell the audience which voices aren’t worth listening to.”

For The Gazette Fact Checker, Castranova said that “reporters have meetings where they discuss the factual claims that they have seen on television, the Web and Facebook or have received from candidates who have opposing views. The factual claims they research must be verifiable and a subject of interest. If someone has requested the staff to fact check a claim, the reporter (first) will check with the source of that claim.”

Gazette reporters are researching facts to help readers make their own decision on whose voice to listen to. They conclude their reports with standard fact checking descriptions of “mostly true, true, mostly false and false.” Some might argue those descriptions are subjective. But they do meet Shirky’s goal.

The second issue: How should journalists use balance? If there is a claim by one candidate fact checked, should all opposing candidates be fact checked on that issue? If one candidate’s claims are found less true, should reporters search for a less true claim by an opposing candidate?

The concept of balanced reporting is being questioned in the Internet age because the audience can find “facts” to support any position. Some journalism ethicists argue that it is now the duty of journalists to help the audience sort through the noise and flood of alleged facts on the Internet.

Erin Jordan, one of the Fact Checker reporters, described the group’s balance efforts: “Our group is trying to balance claims by Democrats and Republicans, but it can be hard if one group just isn’t saying much that can be verified. Some candidates post little on their websites besides some photos and a ‘Donate now’ button. But we’re also listening to speeches and checking social media. Our reporters in the Statehouse send us tips about statements made there. We’re doing our best to keep our minds open to political statements from all camps.”

Peter Hart, activism director at media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, wrote in 2012 about Time Magazine “giving up on fact checking. ... One of the most common problems with media fact checking is the need to always be balanced, no matter how unbalanced reality might be.” He stated that there is a “fear of being seen as unfair and not delivering the facts.”

Michael Scherer of Time responded in an article that “there are just too many subjective judgments that have to be made to come to any conclusion that someone is misleading more” than another candidate.

How Gazette Fact Checkers balance their research will be interesting to watch, especially when some candidates appear to avoid presenting facts that can be fact checked.

MEDIA QUESTION?

If you have an unresolved concern or question about Gazette or KCRG-TV9 news, opinion or online content, contact Judi Whetstine, Iowa Source Media Group’s community advocate, at gaz.communityadvocate@gmail.com, or by mail to Community Advocate, The Gazette, 500 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids, IA 52401. Whetstine, not a Source Media Group employee, is a former assistant U.S. attorney in Cedar Rapids.

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