Fact-Checking is Falling Victim the False Equivalence it Should Be Preventing

Brendan Nyhan astutely points out that the media’s standards for which claims should be fact-checked is rapidly dropping.

Factcheck.org described former President Bill Clinton’s speech to the Democratic convention Wednesday evening as a “fact-checker’s nightmare” in part because, “with few exceptions… his stats checked out.” Rather than concede that it had little material to work with, however, The Associated Press manufactured a “fact check” of Clinton that focused far too heavily on omitted context and possible counter-arguments to his opinions rather than untruths or errors.


The current expectation that factchecks should be produced after every major political event—and that they should find falsehoods to expose—too often leads journalists to try to fit critiques of one-sided rhetoric into that template.

Hmm…a media organization is dedicating the same amount of content to parallel items about each political party? Sound familiar? It’s our good friend false-equivalence. As hard as certain journalists are working improve the industry, false equivalence remains the default when a new format, item, or innovation gains notoriety. The sad thing is that fact-checks should be lowering false-equivalence by providing support for journalists who decide to ignore one side’s false arguments.

The new obsession with fact checking also illustrates the tension inherent in media organizations that are supposed to be profit-making businesses and socially beneficial truth-seekers. Right now fact-checking is all the rage. Because people want more of it the for-profit part of the media is going to give it to them regardless of whether it’s good for the truth-seeking part.


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