Better Than Fact-Checking: An Ohio Reporter Speaks Truth to Power

Challenging President Obama on extrajudicial assassinations, a broadcast journalist whips out the "Reality Check." News, Weather

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**).

Drum suggests a three-part test when evaluating a statement that may be in need of correcting:

1) What was the speaker trying to imply? This is necessarily a judgment call, but it's what gets us away from "lying" and instead focuses our attention on how badly a speaker is trying to mislead us.

2) What would it take to state things accurately? This is the most important part of the exercise. Without getting deep in the weeds (nobody expects politicians to speak in white paper-ese), what would it take to restate things reasonably accurately?

3) How much would accuracy damage the speaker's point? Obviously, if accuracy dents the speaker's point only a bit, not much harm has been done. If it demolishes the speaker's point completely, it's as bad as an actual lie.

Viewed alongside an example of its application, it's quite persuasive.

It seems to me that the video at the top of this item follows the spirit of the Drum approach. In any case, I would like to cite it both as an example of the ethos that Jay Rosen has been urging, and as something other fact-checkers should absorb to improve their product (though as we'll see, this isn't technically a "fact-check," it is a "reality-check," a distinction that matters).

The subject at issue is President Obama's secret assassination list. It is noteworthy that a local broadcast journalist even questioned him about a matter that is almost entirely ignored in that medium.

Kudos to the reporter. 

Here's what he asked:

The so-called presidential kill list that's gotten lots of attention. this list of folks who've been targeted for assassination. And on that list have been U.S. citizens who have not been afforded trial, including Anwar Al-Awlaki. How do you as president, or any president for that matter, regardless of party or person, utilize that power to assassinate even U.S. citizens?

President Obama's answer: "You're basing this on reports in the news that have never been confirmed by me, and I don't talk about our national security decisions in that way." Do watch the video yourself to see how adeptly and factually this was handled, but to summarize, the reporter tells the audience that, while it's technically true that Obama doesn't personally speak about targeted killings in quite that way, members of his administration do talk exactly that way, both on the record and anonymously in authorized leaks, precisely so that they can claim credit.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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