Study: Fact-checkers help prevent misleading statements

October 8, 2013
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Politicians are prone to spewing hyperbole, exaggeration and, on occasion, downright misinformation (we know, we were shocked, shocked, to discover gambling going on in this establishment). But if state legislators get a reminder that their statements are being watched by fact-checkers, they tend to watch their language a little more closely, according to a new study.

The report, from political scientists at Dartmouth and Georgia State University, found that legislators who were reminded that fact-checkers were keeping an eye on their statements were less likely to receive a negative rating from those fact-checkers. That suggests, the report’s authors conclude, that the legislators were more careful to present accurate information.

“When you remind people about the threat that fact-checking might pose to their political career, there’s less indication of their being inaccurate,” said Brendan Nyhan, the Dartmouth political scientist. “The threat of fact-checking probably matters.”

The professors kept an eye on 1,169 legislators running for office in nine states that have fact-checking organizations like PolitiFact, FactCheck.org or our own Washington Post Fact Checker during the 2012 election. A study group was sent letters reminding them that fact-checkers were watching, while a control group didn’t receive a similar letter.

State legislators who received a letter reminding them that fact-checkers were watching, and that their political careers and reputations were on the line, were 55 percent less likely to receive a negative rating from PolitiFact, the study found. And legislators who didn’t receive a reminder they were being watched were more than three times as likely to have the accuracy of their statements questioned by the media.

Perhaps the most striking finding in the report is just how rarely the statements of local elected officials are fact-checked at all: Only 23 of those legislators said anything that fact-checkers decided to rate. Fact-checkers in Florida, Ohio and Virginia, the three battleground states among the nine examined, didn’t pay any attention to what their local legislators said.

“Journalists and fact-checkers should be looking to broaden the scope of fact-checking beyond the presidential election,” Nyhan said. “The scope for fact-checking to have an effect is probably greater as you move down the ladder, because those folks get less scrutiny.”

Mitt Romney might not have been driven by concerns over what fact-checkers think, but the evidence suggests that it matters at the local level.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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