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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Fact-Checking Is More Popular than Politicians

New research shows that the public views political fact-checking journalism — the sort of thing we do here — far more favorably than it does most politicians.

Fact-checking is also a measurably effective tool for correcting political misinformation regardless of whether or not a ratings scale is used, the research shows. Fact-checking increases the audiences’ political knowledge, and it is growing at a dramatic rate.

But the research also shows Republicans view it less favorably than do Democrats. And it found that, overall, those with less education and knowledge viewed fact-checking less favorably than did those with more education and knowledge.

The new findings come from three studies, conducted by scholars at six universities, which were published today by the “Fact-Checking Project” of the American Press Institute, the nonpartisan, nonprofit research and educational affiliate of the Newspaper Association of America.

84 Percent Favorability

One of the studies said, “More than eight in ten Americans (84%) say they have a favorable view of fact-checking, including 36% who say they have a ‘very favorable’ view.” That came from a paper co-authored by Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College, and Jason Reifler, a political scientist at the University of Exeter in England.

Furthermore, the study reported that the more people know about fact-checking the more they like it. The study found fact-checking is viewed favorably by 94 percent of polling respondents who said they were familiar with it, and by 73 percent who said they weren’t familiar with it.

That’s far higher than the ratings the public gives to its political leaders. President Obama, for example, currently averages only a 48 percent favorable rating in polls from 68 different polling organizations tracked by the Huffington Post “Pollster” website.

Other well-known politicians do no better. The Pollster national averages are 23 percent for House Speaker John Boehner, 22 percent for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, 29 percent for Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi and 22 percent for Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid.

The highest favorable ratings for any of the leading presidential prospects are 48 percent for Democrat Hillary Clinton, and 35 percent for Republican Sen. Rand Paul.

‘Strikingly’ Effective at Informing

The same study also found that fact-checking is effective at increasing the audiences’ knowledge. During the weeks leading up to the 2014 elections, the authors exposed one group of randomly selected subjects to actual articles from our friends at PolitiFact.com, while another group was given “placebo” news releases on non-political subjects, such as one on coverage of New York Bridal Fashion Week by TheKnot.com.

Weeks later, after the election, members of  both groups were asked a series of questions to test their political knowledge. Those who had read the PolitiFact articles did significantly better (25 percent correct answers) than those who had not (16 percent correct answers).

“Considering the difficulty of the questions we administered and the delay between viewing the fact-checks and being asked questions about them, these findings are strikingly large,” the authors wrote.

‘Partisan Divide’

The authors also found that fact-checking is “viewed more favorably by Democrats than Republicans, particularly among those with high political knowledge at the conclusion of a political campaign.”

The authors also found that “people who are less informed, educated, and politically knowledgeable have less positive views of the [fact-checking] format.”

Both findings were what the researchers had expected to find. They cited a general distrust of “liberal media” among those who identify themselves as conservatives or Republicans, for example.

But they concluded that “Fact-checkers need to determine how to better attract interest from less knowledgeable and informed voters,” and also how to “minimize the partisan divide on the merits of fact-checking, which could undermine the perceived neutrality of the format and the credibility of its practitioners’ conclusions.”

 Rapid Growth

A second study found that fact-checking stories increased by 300 percent in the four years between the 2008 presidential election year and 2012.

The stories counted included actual fact-checks, and other reports that cited the results of fact-checks. That study was co-authored by Lucas Graves, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and by Nyhan and Reifler.

“Though dedicated, full-time fact checkers remain relatively rare, almost every major national newsroom has embraced the genre in some way,” the authors wrote. And besides those national news outlets, “scores of smaller news outlets at the state and local level offer fact-checks during elections or around major political events like the State of the Union Address.”

The authors concluded that “the fact-checking movement in journalism has much potential yet to be realized” despite its recent surge in growth. And to that end, their study further probed how even more news organizations might be persuaded to undertake fact-checking.

Their conclusion: Just stressing its popularity with readers and viewers is less effective than appealing to journalists’ sense of professionalism. “While audience demand is an important part of the business case for the practice, newsrooms appear to respond most to messages emphasizing how fact-checking is consistent with the best practices and highest aspirations of their field,” the authors stated.

To Rate, Or Not To Rate?

A third study examined a question often discussed in the fact-checking community: Is it more effective to use a rigid rating scale such as PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter or the Washington Post Fact Checker’s “Pinocchio” awards, or to dissect political statements in the way we at FactCheck.org do, relying only on written analysis without such a rating scale?

The conclusion: “[B]oth formats proved equally effective in challenging political misinformation.” But this study also found that when given a choice, 56 percent of readers said they preferred to see articles that include a rating scale.

(Sorry, readers, we won’t be adopting a rating scale. We consider them inherently subjective, and find that many political claims don’t fit neatly into inflexible categories. For more, see our 2012 article, “Firefighters, Fact-Checking and American Journalism.“)

This third study was conducted by Michelle A. Amazeen, an assistant professor in the Department of Marketing, Advertising and Legal Studies at Rider University, with Graves, Emily Thorson of George Washington University, and Ashley Muddiman of the University of Wyoming.

— Brooks Jackson