Let the fact checkers tether us to reality

Recently, ABC’s Media Watch had a great episode on the media reaction to Donald Trump. Paul Barry, the show’s host, highlighted some recent trends – namely, a shift away from simply repeating claims, and towards checking the veracity of claims. It’s not easy, with Trump, as  an interviewee points out:

MARK LECCESE: Most of us who spent many, many years in journalism were trained and, and believed that what you covered was fact, and if what the candidates said was false or a lie, then you needed to report that and then you need to report a rebuttal … But that model doesn’t work as well as it used to, when one candidate not only will make false statements, but will make them repeatedly even after they have been shown to be false, and again and again and again.

— Mark Leccese, Assoc Prof of Journalism, Emerson College, 23 September, 2016

Barry goes on to highlight how the rate of fact-checking has increased. A reporter from Politico is quoted in the show:

“And we found over 85, you know, falsehoods, lies, whatever you want to call them. And so that was one every three minutes”

The US outlet National Public Radio did a similar thing for the recent US presidential debate. They used an inspiring mix of technical wizardry and the old-fashioned, hard-style journalism (that was seemingly eulogised in the film Spotlight). Paul Barry added a comment I found fascinating:

“So will the media now swing it in Hillary’s favour?

Or will its near-united opposition to Trump help convince his supporters the system is rigged against them?

We’ll discover the answer in five weeks’ time. But already some US media commentators believe it’s not just in pursuing ‘He Said She Said journalism’ that the media has failed”

 I suspect that fact-checking isn’t going to convert any Trump voters to adjust their intent…but, that’s okay. Their decisions are driven largely by sentiment, so countering it with claims that they’re disconnected reality are a little futile.

I don’t think elections have ever been won or lost on which side were the most factual – the degree to which the media energetically and frequently exposes falsehoods probably has less of an impact on election results than we hope or assume it does. Persuasion should be left to campaigners, activists and politicians (though, alarmingly, Hillary Clinton is doing a mediocre job of striking at the heart of the sentiment that gives Trump his insane, frothing power).

I genuinely don’t think the media should set their purpose as swaying elections or changing minds, even when they’re doing so in my favour, or in the direction of my personal worldview. Fact-checking needs to be bolstered and super-powered because working hard to determine the nature of reality, as opposed to Trump’s created reality just….has to be done. If it’s futile, and America decides it wants a compulsive, racist, sexist demagogue as its leader, then at least that’s happened in an environment where his falsehoods were recognised for what they are.

It’ll reinforce the victimhood complex manufactured by Trump and his campaign, but the pleas for the media to become an item in Trump’s evil emotional bargain bin should be ignored. The idea that the media should refrain from calling out a lie because reality is hated by a subset of the population seems weird, novel and harmful. It isn’t hard to build the case that letting evidence and reality guide major decision making is helpful, rather than a hindrance. Creating a safe space for lying will be a net negative, globally.

This new effort to re-frame appeals to expertise and evidence as retroactive cultural cruelty will have real, physical impacts, and there are some recent examples in Australia that illustrate how disregarding experts can mess badly with our ability to progress.

Checking facts angers the manufacturers and consumers of comforting lies. That doesn’t make adhering to evidence and reality any less important.

I think that in the long term, an institution that’s anchored to reality with fact-checkers, experts and an instinctive need to scrape away the emotion, sentiment and spin and find nuggets of truth will be of a net benefit to society. It doesn’t move polling numbers, but it helps us in the long run. I hope Trump’s rise catalyses what I feel should be the core function of the media: keeping us tethered to the real world.

Header image – Getty Images / Scott Olson, via Billmoyers.com

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