News organizations covering Wednesday’s presidential debate in Denver will produce two sorts of stories following the polemities. One will be a wrap-up of the goings-on, heavy on analysis and punditry. The other will be fact-checks of the more questionable statements by the candidates.
Though the idea behind the fact-checks is to hold politicians accountable for their words, there’s another benefit: They drive stupendous amounts of traffic to their host Web sites.
How do we know this? Because the Associated Press (AP) says so. When asked how its fact-checks perform relative to regular-old political stories, AP spokesman Paul Colford passes along anecdotal findings from one of the wire service’s editors: “Generally, our fact check pieces are among the stories that most frequently make online popularity lists like the one Yahoo keeps. On those lists, they often outperform and outlast the mainbar stories to which they are sidebars. They’re also heavily mentioned in the Twittersphere.”
According to a leading fact-checking historian, this journalistic form arose at a time when a yahoo was just a moron. Michael Dobbs, in an extensive study for the New America Foundation, credits one man with pioneering the form: “More than any other single politician, Ronald Reagan launched the modern fact-check industry,” writes Dobbs, who founded the Washington Post’s fact-checking column in 2007. Reagan claimed that trees cause more pollution than cars.
In the intervening decades, Dobbs outlines varying degrees of vigor in fact-checking. He cites the late David Broder’s claim that the press had failed to call out the claims of George H.W. Bush in his 1988 campaign against Democrat Michael Dukakis. And the march to the 2003 Iraq war counts as a defeat for facts and fact-checking across all of American journalism.
From its informal and somewhat sporadic incarnation of yore, fact-checking in recent years has become an industry, with a load of news organizations jumping on board. FactCheck.org, PolitiFact, CNN, AP, the Washington Post, the New York Times and far too many local TV stations to link to.
Ben Swann, a fact-checking reporter with a Cincinnati Fox station, gained fame recently for a “reality check” regarding President Obama’s use of drone strikes. His checking has helped him to amass more than 46,000 Facebook “likes.” “It has grown like crazy,” says Swann, noting that fans in 30 countries have let the station know they’re watching.
Justin Bank, who works on the Washington Post’s social, search and audience development, says the following about the paper’s fact-checks:
The Fact Checker blog is extremely popular with readers. On average, it attracts more click overs from social media. It, quite often, will go viral and pull in a slew of ‘direct traffic’ as folks e-mail and instant message it to each other. And, when featured on the homepage, the Fact Checker signature draws eyeballs, and, with them, clicks. These homepage readers are the ones who are arguably most familiar with the breadth of our regular reporting and are making a very informed, deliberate decision to click on those stories. They’ve clearly read the content before and have decided it’s worth their time.
As for FactCheck.org, boss Brooks Jackson told me that during the Republican National Convention, the pieces that his crew produced in partnership with USA Today “were among the most-read political pieces on their site.”
And when asked about PolitiFact’s traffic, top editor Bill Adair raved about the growing audience and proclaimed 2012 the “year of the fact-checker.”
All the clicking may well stem from decades of news-consumer frustration with the conventions of political reporting. The broad-brush analysis stories; the what-so-and-so-needs-to-do-now stories; the stories on messaging; the debate preview and review stories. Fact-checking represents a retreat from the mush and blandness of the political reportorial tradition. It marshals facts and judgments and instant gratification. The Washington Post’s Bank, a veteran of FactCheck.org, notes, “There’s a lot of noise out there and it’s nice to read by numbers some times. Same reason folks still love reading agate and box scores.”
The Fact-Checking series so far:
Fourth: Clinton bedevils fact-checkers.
Seventh: Biden and Obama keep checkers busy.
Eighth: A task for fact-checkers: Did the administration apologize for American values?
Thirteenth: Catch the error in this Washington Times invite.
Fourteenth: AP editor cites Bachmann fact-checking ‘quota.’