The Fact-Checking Trust Gap

It turns out there’s a crisis of trust for fact-checking organizations, at least with respect to the U.S. audience.

So far, it seems that fact-checking organizations are content to ignore the problem. After all, they know they are doing a fantastic job fact-checking. So isn’t it just a matter of time before the reliability of fact-checking sinks in with the American public?

But let’s consider the facts from a Pew Research Survey published last week.

Untrusted by Half

Forty-eight percent of the survey population said it believes fact checkers favor one side. Among Republicans, 69 percent said fact checkers favor one side. Among Democrats, 29 percent said they think the fact checkers favor one side. As for moderates, 47 percent said fact checkers favor one side.

That trust gap representes terrible news for U.S. fact checkers. Nearly half their audience believes the fact checkers favor one side. They do not believe the fact checkers stay neutral. And though fact-checkers like to defend themselves from accusations of bias by claiming they get criticized from both sides, as a matter of fact the Democrats were the only group where a strong majority trusted in fact checker neutrality.

The fact checkers’ neutrality argument works best if moderates trust the fact checkers while the right and the left register distrust. But public opinion skews heavily to one side. The liberals find the fact checkers pretty much trustworthy. The Republicans find the fact-checkers untrustworthy. And the moderates are split just about down the middle.

In short, the Pew Research survey returns the type of result we should expect if the fact checkers skewed left.

We noted in Oct. 24, 2016 that two other pollsters published similar results.


Ask Better Questions, Pollsters

Though it’s likely one may safely assume that a Republican who thinks fact checkers favor one side think the favored side is Democrats, the pollsters should not leave that issue unexplored. Where moderates think one side gets favored over the other, which side is it? What percentage of Democrat skeptics think the fact checkers favor Republicans?

The need for better questions seems so obvious that we almost suspect the pollsters do not want to know the answers.

The Way Forward for Fact-Checking

Fact-Checkers have taken a wrong-headed approach to the trust deficit, starting, evidently, with the assumption that they are trustworthy.

Under that assumption, the key to garnering public trust lies in convincing the audience that it is wrong not to trust fact checkers. Toward that end, fact checkers make ostentatious nods toward transparency and even offer assurances (albeit unconvincing) that they are, in fact, neutral.

The problem, borrowing from PolitiFact co-creator Matthew Waite, is that the fact checkers are the problem. But they can’t bring themselves to face that fact.

Fact checkers ignore the importance of ideological diversity in the workplace and many (not all) embrace the gimmickry of misleading, subjective sliding scale rating systems. And if PolitiFact serves as any indicator, fact checkers tend to struggle with consistent application of their own principles. That’s predictable, of course, where the principles rely on subjective judgments.

We haven’t simply criticized the failings of fact checkers. We have looked for solutions to the problems and advocated their adoption by fact checkers.

  1. Use objective rating systems or else do not use rating systems
  2. As a third alternative to No. 1, adopt full and consistent disclosure regarding the weaknesses of any rating system
  3. Adopt the “Report an Error” system or something similar to encourage correction of in-house errors
  4. Embrace radical transparency, as by making email exchanges with experts accessible to readers
  5. Use politically polarized teams for fact-checking to avoid group-think errors
  6. Correct in-house errors transparently and conspicuously
  7. Publicly defend against charges of error (where reasonable)
  8. Adopt clear and realistic principles and then follow those principles rigorously
  9. Stay vigilant regarding other avenues where bias might affect reporting; publicize and/or pro-actively address them

Notably, we place no importance on the “non-partisan” facade emphasized in the International Fact-Checking Network’s statement of principles. We do not believe that a person who secretly votes for political party A is necessarily less biased than an open advocate for political party A. In fact, everything else being equal the secret voter counts as the more deceptive of the two based on the lack of transparency. Content is king. Good fact-checking is good fact-checking regardless of the source.

Bridge the Trust Gap

Fact checkers can reasonably expect the skeptical audience to change its mind after fact checkers address the concerns of the skeptical audience.

Not before.

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