Fact Check Politicians and They Will Lie Less

Mitt_Romney_by_Gage_Skidmore_7.jpg
Photo by Gage Skidmore
I almost lied my way to the presidency!
It is unremarkable to say that politicians, both Democratic and Republican, shade the truth, tell half-truths, spin any topic, or, their favorite, simply refuse to answer the question asked and reiterate a talking point.

Indeed, some commentators said that 2012 was the first "post-truth" campaign where the national media essentially let Romney and his surrogates tell outright falsehoods (lies) and failed to properly call them out in the name of "objectivity." In fact, one Romney pollster famously said: "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers." We will lie our way to the presidency!

That's the bad news. Well, here's a little bit of good news: some enterprising researchers sent the following letter to a random selection of state legislators:

We are writing to let you know about an important research project. As you may know, the national fact-checking organization PolitiFact has created an affiliate in [legislator's state]. Our research project examines how elected officials in your state are responding to the presence of this fact-checking organization during this campaign season. PolitiFact examines statements made by politicians and then rates their accuracy and truthfulness on a scale that ranges from "true" to "pants on fire"...In particular, we are writing to notify you that we are studying how elected officials react to the presence of a PolitiFact affiliate in their state.

And what did they find when the state legislators were sent this note during the fall 2012 campaign?

Our results indicate that state legislators who were sent letters about the threat posed by fact-checkers were less likely to have their claims questioned as misleading or inaccurate during the fall campaign--a promising sign for journalistic monitoring in democratic societies.

This is positive news. Note, however, that the effect of negative media coverage probably has more effect on a state legislator than a member of Congress. But let's not let that dampen our enthusiasm. This shows that the media, if politicians know they're watching, can exert influence over politicians who will lie, engage in deceit or simply spin a "fact." Indeed, the researchers note that the impact of their study might be understated because they cannot be sure every legislator they sent the letter actually read it carefully.

So, journalists, drop the false equivalence "he said / he said" journalism. Your charge is to investigate the politicians you cover statements and call them out.


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