Politicians have always had a tricky relationship with objective reality. Dishonesty, or more simply lack of interest in the truth, is a trait shared by some of history’s most revered and most reviled leaders alike. And in free democracies like Canada and the United States, reporters have traditionally relied on rival politicians and experts to correct the record.The 2015 federal election campaign, in which competing narratives about the Conservatives’ economic record took centre stage, provides some good examples of the approach.“Trudeau fended off … attacks (over planned deficit spending) by attacking Harper, saying Conservative prosperity has not trickled down to the middle class,” The Canadian Press reported of the second leaders’ debate of the campaign. “Under the prime minister, Canada has had its worst economic growth in 80 years, Trudeau said.”“‘Are you better off now than you were 10 years ago when Stephen Harper became prime minister?’ Trudeau asked, rhetorically, in his opening remarks.Harper responded that Canada fared fare better than other nations and asked, also rhetorically: “Over the last 10 years … where would you rather have been than Canada?’”When politicians spout untruths shamelessly and voluminously, it’s insufficient to simply report both sides
There was much with which to quibble. Empirical facts didn’t bear up much of Trudeau’s economic narrative. And was it fair for him to blame Harper for the downturn? As for Harper, if economic rebound was your sole criteria it was debatable whether Canada had indeed been the best place in the world to live for the previous decade.Most reporting on the debate, however, simply presented both sides, pitting the politicians’ claims against each other and letting the reader decide. In the upcoming campaign, comparable reports will be more likely to try to correct talking points like these on the fly.The ascendency of Donald Trump in Washington, and of the Ford Brothers in Ontario — Premier Doug Ford and his late brother Rob, who was mayor of Toronto for four tumultuous years — have seen more and more reporters fact-checking their subjects in their daily files.“Bothsidesism” doesn’t work anymore, the theory goes: When politicians spout untruths shamelessly and voluminously, it’s insufficient to simply report both sides, relying on another politician or expert to inform the reader. Instead, when a statement is demonstrably false, reporters should say so up front and show their work. With a federal election just weeks away, media consumers can expect to see far more specific exploration of politicians’ claims than they did four years ago — and ideally, they will end up better informed. But when journalistic fact-checking happens centre-stage, as opposed to behind the scenes, reporters sometimes reveal more about themselves than they do about the facts they’re checking. Done badly, fact-checking can actually exacerbate the partisan, misinformation-riddled mess it’s designed to cut through.*****Standalone political fact-checking operations like Snopes, FactCheck.org, the Sunlight Foundation and the Tampa Bay Times’ PolitiFact (now part of the Poynter Institute) began catching on in the late 2000s: There were 44 such sites around the world in 2014, according to an ongoing census by the Duke Reporters’ Lab, and 114 in 2017.North of the border, the idea took hold at the Toronto Star in 2012, when mayor Rob Ford claimed to have found the paper’s City Hall reporter Daniel Dale skulking around in his backyard at twilight, trying to take pictures of his children. In fact Dale had been checking out a piece of public land adjacent to Ford’s property that the mayor wanted to purchase, and in broad daylight. Dale threatened legal action, and Ford eventually apologized “without reservation.” But in the meantime Dale had stuck up for himself in a piece headlined “Rob Ford is lying about me and it’s vile.”“After that all died down I (thought), ‘If I can say that factually about him talking about me, for what reason can’t I use those same words for his or other politicians’ claims about other stuff?’” says Dale. “Why should I get special treatment from myself?”`
Daniel Dale, then with the Toronto Star, tells his side of an encounter with Toronto mayor Rob Ford that led to a threatened lawsuit and eventual apology by Ford, May 3, 2012.
A personal battle might not be the most auspicious reason to get into the fact-checking business — but Dale was careful not just to fact-check the Fords. During the 2014 mayoral campaign, his “Campaign Lie Detector” feature flagged 14 untrue things Rob Ford said in a July debate, and seven between his four opponents. Three months later Dale counted 23 false or misleading claims from Doug Ford — Rob having dropped out to receive cancer treatment — three from Olivia Chow and two from eventual winner John Tory. The approach stuck at the Star’s City Hall bureau, whose reporters often quite aggressively call out “false claims.” You can see it as well in various outlets’ coverage of Ford’s government at Queen’s Park, which has unmistakably taken on elements of the premier’s personality.After covering City Hall, Dale rose to international prominence as the Star’s correspondent in Washington, where he maintained a running count of every false thing Trump has said as president: there were 5,276 of them when Dale left the Star in June for CNN. His approach gained him a remarkable following for a foreign correspondent — he now has 587,000 followers on Twitter, and has support from a junior reporter at CNN to continue his fact-checking mission. But long before his move to a U.S. outlet, his approach had caught the notice of his American colleagues on Capitol Hill. And as it turned out, some of them were really bad at imitating it — as illustrated during Trump’s Feb. 5 State of the Union address.The New York Times declared “false” Trump’s claim that illegal crossings of the Mexican border constituted “an urgent national crisis,” on grounds that “Illegal border crossings have been declining for two decades.”Problem: A “crisis” is not a quantifiable thing. As David Harsanyi observed at The Federalist, it seems very unlikely the Times would give similar treatment to a politician declaring gun violence a crisis, despite a dramatic drop in gun homicides in recent years.Some of the worst ones are when people attempt to fact-check something that I don’t think is fact-checkable
“We … have more women serving in Congress than at any time before,” Trump observed. NPR’s “fact check”: “There are more women in Congress than ever before, but not in Trump’s party. The number of Republican women in the House has fallen from 23 to 13 since the last Congress.”Problem: Trump hadn’t taken any credit for himself or his party on the question of female representation. It sounded like a Democratic talking point.Trump claimed American soldiers had been “fighting in the Middle East for almost 19 years.” Not so, declared the Times, because “Afghanistan is not technically considered part of the Middle East — it is in southwest Asia.”Problem: Good grief.The weirdest fact-check however, came from Times’ White House correspondent Annie Karni. To Trump’s suggestion that American troops had metaphorically “come down from heaven” to liberate Auschwitz, she riposted: “Jews don’t believe in heaven.” “I think some of the worst ones are when people attempt to fact-check something that I don’t think is fact-checkable,” says Dale. “Those kinds of claims include predictions or statements where the politician is using what I think is political rhetoric that shouldn’t be fact-checked literally.” He points to attempts in January to fact-check left-wing Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s contention that “a vast majority of the country doesn’t make a living wage.” Of course there are concrete definitions of “living wage” available, Dale says, but it’s an “inherently vague term.”Dale is also careful only to call something a “lie” when there’s ample evidence the untruth was deliberate. (As an example, he cites Trump’s bewilderingly false claim that the head of the Boy Scouts called to congratulate him on his much-reviled speech to their annual Jamboree.) It’s something that riles up partisans: Dale says he’s constantly being barked at on Twitter to “call it a lie.” But it’s a very important distinction if journalists want their fact-checks to be taken seriously, and simply as a matter of accuracy: Human beings say incorrect things all the time without meaning to.In a 2013 paper, University of Miami political scientists Joseph Uscinski and Ryden Butler outlined various “dubious fact-checking practices” that can undermine the whole endeavour for mainstream news organizations: sample bias (i.e., focusing on certain kinds of politicians or “facts” while ignoring others), trying to fact-check inherently unprovable statements such as predictions and causality claims, and using expert opinion in an attempt to prove facts as opposed to providing context.
By the time Daniel Dale left the Toronto Star in June, he had counted 5,276 lies by U.S. President Donald Trump.
Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images
Many of these concerns echo Dale’s. And with various Canadian news outlets gearing up to fact-check the federal election, there are many lessons to be learned.CP, for example, operates a “Baloney Meter” feature that often gives useful results, but that just as often malfunctions. Last year, for example, it tested Conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s claim that “Justin Trudeau broke the law” with his vacation on the Aga Khan’s private island,” and that this constituted “a first in Canadian history.”“We haven’t had a federal ethics law for very long, so … most prime ministers couldn’t breach (it) if they wanted to,” a poli-sci professor tells us. Also “breaking rules … is not the only standard for ethical evaluation.”Both are true, but neither are relevant to the veracity of Scheer’s very specific allegation — which was true.In 2015, when John Baird resigned from politics, CP tried to fact-check his claim to “have seen the stature of our country grow in the eyes of the world” — an unverifiable statement mashed together with an entirely subjective one.We have learned … that there are claims, comments and sentiments that don’t lend themselves to the fact-checking model
Last year, CP found the Conservatives’ plans to crack down on gun violence, because “Canadians deserve to feel safe where they live,” to be “full of baloney” — because “criminal-justice experts say existing penalties and parole provisions are stiff enough.”That is indeed what almost all self-described criminal-justice experts say. But expert opinion isn’t fact, no matter how expert it might be. In any event, you can’t fact-check how Canadians “feel.”“We have learned — often through trial and error — that there are claims, comments and sentiments that don’t lend themselves to the fact-checking model,” James McCarten, CP’s acting Ottawa bureau chief concedes. “While the (Baloney Meter) results remain journalistically valid and valuable, they can nonetheless strike the wrong note when presented in the bloodless, dispassionate frame (it) is meant to convey.” He says they’re working on nailing down what’s a proper subject and what isn’t.During the campaign, he says the plan is to “deploy a more compact, basic version of the Meter on a more regular basis … reserving as much of our attention as possible to clear statements presented as fact.”
Ontario Premier Doug Ford, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe.
It’s not hard to see how fact-checking will play into the campaign — and not hard to see how it might go wrong. In their war against the Liberal carbon tax, Ford, federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe all focus on the costs to Canadian families. It “will cost the average Ontario family $648 a year,” according to the narrator of a taxpayer-funded advertisement recently released by the Ontario government.Carbon tax supporters often claim this is misleading, since the tax is designed to be mostly revenue neutral: the Liberals claim eight out of 10 families will end up better off. CP ran that through the Baloney Meter recently and found it was more like seven out of 10 if you include indirect expenses as well as direct. It was an even-handed and informative piece — but the topic is somewhat unconducive to a “fact check,” inasmuch as it deals with predictions. The carbon tax is brand new. It won’t be revenue-neutral unless it works as the government says it will; and if it does it won’t stay revenue-neutral unless the government decides to keep it that way.That you should get the money back is certainly essential information, but it’s a fact that Canadians will be significantly out of pocket in the meantime. Indeed that’s the whole point of a carbon tax: to change consumer behaviour using prices. Nevertheless, a Toronto Star editorial published May 13 declared the $648 figure “wrong,” when it’s precisely what the government projects the tax will cost the average family in 2022. Also “wrong,” in the Star’s estimation, is an Ontario government ad claiming that “a carbon tax isn’t the only way to fight climate change.”That’s less “wrong” than it is tautological.*****Canadians seem to be more trusting of mass media than Americans: An Ipsos poll conducted last year found 69 per cent of respondents professed at least “a fair amount” of “trust and confidence … in traditional news media … when it comes to reporting the news fully, accurately, and fairly.” That’s roughly how Americans felt in the 1970s, according to Gallup’s ongoing polling. That number bottomed out in Trump-addled 2016 at 32 per cent.But this is an especially fraught time for trust in Canadian media. Many legacy outlets are staggering financially. “Fake news” and misinformation are top-of-mind concerns. And on both fronts, the government is determined to help.Political partisans always bristle at what they see as unfair coverage; for Conservatives in particular, the idea that most journalists are bought and paid for by the Liberal Party of Canada is a foundational doctrine. Now the Liberal government is determined to bail out newspapers to the tune of $600 million. It invited the unabashedly anti-Conservative union Unifor, which represents a huge percentage of anglophone print journalists, to name a representative to the panel deciding how to disburse the funds; and Unifor’s leader, Jerry Dias, is defending the process while assailing Conservatives’ criticisms as “Trump-style” and promising to further ramp up his campaign against Scheer.
Canadians seem to be more trusting of mass media than Americans, but “fake news” and misinformation are top-of-mind concerns.
“As if it were not bad enough that the country’s newspapers will be taking money from one of the parties they will be writing about in the next election,” columnist Andrew Coyne wrote in the National Post, “we are shaping up to be a central issue in the campaign we are covering.”It’s a perfect storm — and “fact-checking” could well be at the eye of it. Done carefully and dispassionately fact checking is a chance for journalists and their outlets to showcase an unbiased perspicacity. Done lazily or gratuitously or selectively, it’s a fearsomely efficient way to embarrass themselves and reveal serious institutional flaws.Moreover, even when fact-checking is done properly, a fascinating and robust body of social science research calls the whole point of the exercise into question.It’s well understood that human beings take unkindly to information that contradicts their biases and preferences. But political scientists Brendan Nyhan and James Reifler have found the process of trying to correct misinformation can actually “backfire.” In a 2005 experiment, they found conservative test subjects were significantly more likely to believe Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction before the U.S.-led invasion after they read a news article that explained that he hadn’t.Other research disputes the strength and perniciousness of this so-called “backfire effect.” But there is little evidence anywhere that fact-checking is a political game-changer even when it “works”. Nyhan and Reifler, along with political scientists Ethan Porter and Thomas J. Wood, published research earlier this year that found partisans were perfectly willing to take on board new information; it just didn’t affect their votes.“Journalistic fact-checks can overcome directionally motivated reasoning and bring people’s beliefs more in line with the facts,” they found. “However, neither Clinton nor Trump supporters changed their attitudes towards either candidate after receiving fact-checks.”It’s hard to imagine better politics happening without a better-informed population
This reality has caused many to throw up their hands and declare a “post-truth” era. But while Trump and the Fords may spout untruth in a way and at a rate we’re unused to, Canadians and Americans were well-used to broken promises, outrageous spin and purebred, indefensible whoppers before they came along.Richard Nixon said his office had nothing to do with the Watergate burglary. Brian Mulroney claimed only to have met Karlheinz Schreiber for coffee “once or twice.” Lyndon Johnson said his grandfather died defending the Alamo, as opposed to in bed, nowhere near San Antonio. Jean Chrétien once invented a homeless man to whom whom he supposedly talked now and again to keep him grounded. While running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1987, Joe Biden didn’t just borrow chunks of British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock’s speeches — he adopted significant chunks of Kinnock’s life story.If truth-telling were a prerequisite for political support, if outrageous lying were enough to change Americans’ and Canadians’ minds about how and for whom to vote, the two nations’ political histories would look very different indeed. Partisanship would be nearly impossible to maintain.“I think that a lot of the calculation is rational,” says Dale. “Some people will (say), ‘Yeah, I know (Trump is) a bullshitter. I know he makes a lot of things up. But he gave me a tax cut and he put two pro-life justices on the Supreme Court.”That might be maddening to Democrats and independents. But it doesn’t discredit the “fact-checking movement” at all. As Dale says, it’s not a reporter’s job to worry what people do with correct information; it’s a reporter’s job to deliver it. And on that front, the social science seems fundamentally encouraging: If it’s not torqued, silly, smarmy or rubbed in consumers’ faces, most people seem willing to change their minds about what’s true and what isn’t.Creating a better-informed population might not lead to better politics on its own, but it’s journalism’s fundamental goal. And it’s hard to imagine better politics happening without a better-informed population.• Email: firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: cselley