Fact-checkers see importance rise as elections draw near, Rutgers academics say
In the time of ubiquitous mass media, when news outlets pump out content for clicks instead of public interest, some still fight to sift out the truth.
“The purpose of fact-checkers is to verify the claims made by politicians and other public figures in order to hold them accountable for inaccuracies and better inform the public. Fact-checking is essentially a form a journalism,” said Lauren Feldman, an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies.
Fact-checkers are important, regardless of whether they are noticed or appreciated, said Philip Napoli, an associate dean in the School of Communication and Information.
Fact-checkers uphold the foundation of watchdog journalism, Napoli said.
“They ensure that people aren’t being misquoted or that whatever facts are being laid out as fact for the sake of an article are valid. They need to make sure that the article isn’t misleading people or giving false information,” said Sean Parker, a School of Arts and Sciences junior.
Even if someone does not recognize the term, “fact-checker,” that same person has accessed a website with one, even unintentionally, Feldman said.
“I think the visibility of fact-checkers is growing, particularly during elections. Even if people don't directly visit their websites, they are likely to see the results of fact-checking in news reports, on their social media feeds (and more),” she said.
Parker believes this element of truth-seeking should not be biased. Instead, fact-checkers should confirm whether or not something was said and if what was said is true.
Most fact checkers cannot help but be subjective, as it is human nature to have an opinion, Napoli said.
“I think fact-checkers operate the same way journalism has traditionally operated in that they try to be non-partisan. But ultimately I think there's no such thing as a purely objective journalist,” Napoli said.
Feldman agrees, and said that some of the more prestigious fact-checkers will show subjectivity.
“Many media outlets engage in fact-checking, and some of these are partisan. However, the most credible and highly regarded fact checkers — like Politifact, FactCheck — are not partisan,” Feldman said.
Though many remain devoted to keeping political rhetoric in check, fact-checkers are no longer focused on just politics. In an attempt to further enlighten the public, they have broadened their scope, Feldman said.
For instance, FactCheck.org has recently created SciCheck, a fact-checker for "false or misleading scientific claims made by partisans to influence public policy," according the the organization's website.
Without basic fact checks, it would be difficult to determine the validity of statements, and corruption would probably run rampant, Feldman said.
“(Politicians) would feel freer to manipulate the public through inaccurate claims if they knew that they would not be fact-checked,” she said.
Parker has not decided if he should trust fact-checkers as a whole, but said he will perform his own checks when obtaining information.
“Where did the information come from? You kind of have to treat it like Wikipedia,” he said.
The public should trust most fact-checkers, Napoli said. Prominent fact-checking institutions originated from major universities and prestigious newspapers, a detail that has been key in establishing their credibility.
Fact-checkers will change with the times, he said.
“The future of fact-checking may be one in which the process is automated. There is research that is looking into whether algorithms can fact-check as well as, or better, than human beings," he said. "There is some question as to whether fact checking enterprises are sustainable long-term given the labor costs."
Nicole Osztrogonacz is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student majoring in English. She is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum. Find her on Twitter @nikki_osz for more.
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