clock menu more-arrow no yes

Donald Trump has ushered in a whole new era of fact-checking in journalism

Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Donald Trump officially accepted the Republican Party's nomination for the presidency with a speech championing facts.

"I will always tell you the truth," Trump said at a campaign rally in August.

But Trump has also struggled with the truth. During NBC's Commander-in-Chief Forum, he repeated an old lie about how he opposed the Iraq War from the start. He also claimed Obama's "roll back" of law enforcement policies have led to an increase in crime (crime has plummeted for decades), stated America is one the "highest-taxed" nations in the world (it's one of the least-taxed) and said Hillary Clinton wants to abolish the Second Amendment (she hasn't said that). And so on.

This wasn’t an isolated incident: Fully 71 percent of PolitiFact’s 245 fact-checks on Trump so far have received a "mostly false," "false" or "pants on fire" rating. By comparison, just 28 percent of the site’s 248 Clinton fact-checks have received the same. When it comes to truth, Trump is clearly in a category of his own.

At times, his false claims have perpetuated divisive and dangerous ideas. In the wake of the Orlando shooting in June, Trump claimed the shooter, Omar Mateen, was "born an Afghan" (he was born in America). He (baselessly) pointed fingers at the Muslim community for harboring terrorists. He (baselessly) insinuated that President Barack Obama had something to do with the attack. He (falsely) claimed the United States has no vetting process for Syrian refugees.

This has posed a real dilemma for those of us covering his campaign. How do you write about a speech filled with so many wild insinuations? How do you report on Trump’s baseless statements without just giving them a wider audience? What’s the responsible way to fact-check Donald Trump?

As it turns out, lots of journalists are grappling with these questions. I called up Lucas Graves, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison and author of the forthcoming book Deciding What's True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism. He argues that Trump is actually pushing journalism into a new era, emboldening newsrooms to be more aggressive in calling him out. Below is our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Tara Golshan: From a fact-checking perspective, what makes Donald Trump different from other candidates?

Lucas Graves: Trump is really unusual in his style of speech. Imagine if the race right now were between Clinton and Bush, how different the political discourse would be. That is not to say that Clinton and Bush don’t exaggerate, don't mislead, or don't engage in all the routine political distortions that are a part of political life — they absolutely do — but with Trump, it is not only a question of being misleading; it is that a lot of his discourse is just free of factual claims.

He makes insinuations, he makes suggestions, he draws associations, for instance between President Obama and radical jihadists. What is the factual basis for the association? What is he actually saying about anti-American terrorists? He doesn't tell whether Obama is secretly sympathetic to them or is secretly on their side. He doesn't lay out his claims, so that makes fact-checking him a special challenge.

TG: Do you buy the idea that Trump is pushing us into some new "post-truth" or "post-fact" era? Is this campaign worse than ever?

LG: I think it is impossible to measure the amount of political lying. You have really remarkable misleading claims throughout history. That feeling that we are in a "post-fact era" just reflects this long-term shift in political discourse that reflects the declining strength in parties, the end of the Cold War political consensus, and the fragmentation of the media environment.

Journalists are no longer gatekeepers in the way they were. Even a decade ago you could meaningfully speak of journalists being able to police to some extent the focus and nature of public discourse, and that is simply not true anymore. Since the 1990s, it has become easier for politicians to speak more directly to the voters, and it is easier for people to tailor their own media diet to their own preferences.

The irony of political discourse in the age of the internet and social media is that we have never had more substantial fact-driven political discourse than we do today. The level of analysis you see across news sites and blogs and other engaged members of the public online is fantastically elevated compared to any period in our history.

Every piece of political rhetoric is endlessly and carefully scrutinized, so people engage in substantial and factual arguments. In that sense, this is a golden age of factual discourse. But it is also easier for people to ignore the information that does not support their beliefs and for rumors to find the most receptive audience.

TG: So how is fact-checking evolving in this new era?

LG: The first thing to understand is fact-checking is the culmination of really long-term shifts in journalism: more analysis, more critical coverage, especially of political actors.

The whole idea of going behind the scenes, to analyze a political campaign strategically, only starts getting going in the 1960s. It has increased steadily since then.

Also, through the 1960s journalists had more and more examples of politicians and government officials’ willingness to lie about important matters of state. Watergate and Vietnam brought that into tremendously sharp relief. Journalists became less trusting of political officials, more skeptical of political claims.

If you ask fact-checkers, the turning point is the 1988 presidential election. The campaign was so negative and dominated by outrageous distortions [that] afterward there was a period of self-flagellation for journalists. They wondered what they did wrong, what they could have done better. There was a pretty public call for journalists to start checking the accuracy of campaign ads. Because increasingly it seemed that TV ads were really shaping the outcome of elections.

TG: Today it seems like the default reaction to campaign ads is skepticism.

LG: It’s not that there had never been negative campaign ads. But the 1988 campaign ads were seen as being especially devoid of substance and what was called the air war. Afterward, in the 1990s, fact-checking became a lot more common. They were called "ad watches" that focused on TV commercials. And that ends up being a pattern that we see over and over. Journalists take up some new style of reporting as a response to what they see as even dirtier tactics.

We see that in 2004, the first surge of modern fact-checking — 2004 was the year of the "swift boat" ads against John Kerry. It was also seen as a fairly substance-less campaign dominated by negative ads. You saw the first dedicated online professional fact-checker, FactCheck.org. For the 2008 race you have PolitiFact and the Washington Post’s fact-checker. Every year since then, you see an increase in the amount of fact-checking from professional journalists.

TG: How does Trump alter this dynamic?

LG: This race is another turning point in the sense that journalists are thinking pretty openly in what they have to do to deal with a candidate like Donald Trump.

You see this in their complete embrace of fact-checking — not just in a dedicated sidebar or fact-check piece but actually in the straight news reports. That has always been rare but may become more common.

TG: Are there good examples?

LG: This CNN chyron [which bluntly fact-checked a Trump remark] is something I don't think they have ever done before. Just to note in passing that a claim is not true without feeling like they have to justify it or call it a fact-check or go into tremendous detail — that really reflects the unusual nature of Trump’s candidacy.

Journalists feel more comfortable challenging his claims publicly and directly. It is taken for granted that he is an unusual candidate. Pieces in the press openly compare him to demagogues in history, and he clearly has an unusual rhetorical style. That has really given journalists a kind of freedom that they haven't felt in the past to directly challenge his claims.

Another really interesting example was this Jake Tapper interview. Tapper was questioning Trump about his criticism of [federal judge Gonzalo Curiel]. Trump tried to dodge the question, as politicians usually do, and really uncharacteristically for a cable news host, Tapper really pushed back over and over and over and stayed on the same question for many minutes. That is something that you almost never see in an interview with a major political candidate.

Jake Tapper’s one-on-one with Trump.
Screenshot/CNN

TG: Do you think this shift toward more analytical journalism and fact-checking has led to more distrust in the media? Isn’t it easier now for politicians to call out journalists for showing what they perceive as bias?

LG: Broadly speaking, the answer is no. Declining public trust in the media mirrors the decline in trust in a number of institutions in public life. It mirrors the shift away from consensus politics and party-driven politics that we have seen since the 1950s and the 1960s.

In some ways, that period in the middle of the last century — where you had widespread economic prosperity and Republicans and Democrats saw each other as the loyal opposition — was the exception. You had really high faith in public institutions.

[Since then,] our politics have become more fractured. It has become a really elemental political strategy to question the fairness of the press. The rise of the modern conservative movement since the 1960s hinged on challenging the legitimacy and impartiality of professional journalists, and that has been a very successful political strategy.

TG: Are professional fact-checkers particular targets here?

LG: It is absolutely true that fact-checking is a style of journalism that invites especially harsh partisan responses both from the public and from politicians. Fact-checkers have to weather pretty vicious responses, because they are taking a side. That is why it is so important for professional fact-checkers to scrutinize every politician — to make it clear they are independent of both parties. It is a particularly risky kind of journalism in that sense.

TG: How do you measure the impact of fact-checking in cases like Trump's? Does it make any difference?

LG: There are three different ideas for how fact-checking might make a difference.

One idea is that people might read fact-checks and stop holding false beliefs.

The second idea is that fact-checking may discourage politicians from lying, because it increases the costs if they lie. There is a lot of evidence that politicians do pay attention to fact-checkers. They react loudly and angrily when they disagree with a fact-check. Clearly politicians are paying attention.

The third is that it will actually change the way other journalists will report the news. If a fact-check is out there, then maybe journalists won't report a false claim. They will challenge people in interviews the way Tapper did pushing back on Trump about racism.

We do see each of those models working. The fact that Trump ignores the fact-checkers does not mean that fact-checking will not have an important impact on this race. This is a really unusual contest. Trump is a really unusual candidate, and the long-term result to Trump is an open question.

GOP Presidential Candidates Debate In Detroit
Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz participate in a debate sponsored by Fox News at the Fox Theatre on March 3, 2016.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

TG: Earlier this campaign season, you argued for real-time fact-checking during televised interviews or debates. What’s the benefit there?

LG: If candidates know they are going to be challenged on the air, they are either not going to make a misleading claim or they are going to back it up. The classic case was when Trump was fact-checked during a debate and he said, "I never said that," and they played the video evidence.

The middle of a debate or a live interview — those are the times a fact-check has an impact. No politician wants to be caught with millions of potential voters watching.

One hope is that live fact-checking can actually get politicians to be more careful and to be less misleading — at least during the debate. Also, from a viewer's point of view, they are hearing the correction before the belief has a chance to take hold. There is lots of social science research to support the idea that it is much better to prevent false or mistaken beliefs from being established, because once we have established an idea we have a really hard time of letting go of it.

TG: What advice would you give for fact-checking the 2016 election?

LG: The most important thing is to hew narrowly to factual claims. There are two mistakes that journalists make when fact-checking, especially with Donald Trump: When you catch a politician changing their position or advancing an argument that seems to point in a different direction to what they said before, that is not a fact-check. That’s an inconsistency that is something worth pointing [out].

Fact-checkers have had to come up with pretty precise rule for what counts as a fact-check. Another thing you see a lot with Trump is that it is not clear what his factual claim is, what he is suggesting. It is important in those cases not to assume what he means. When fact-checking Trump, be precise about what his claims are, and if he hasn’t made this clear, say so.

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.