Fact-checking is what journalists do. It’s one of the largest parts of the job.
In recent years fact-checking has become somewhat of a sport for journalists, at least in the political spectrum. There are movements by papers to find facts, and websites such as PolitiFact.com and FactCheck.org have sprung up in recent years. The Washington Post even has a fact-checking blog.
Whether this recent surge is due to more frequent factual stretching by politicians and their mouthpieces or if, thanks to the Internet, we’re finally finding a way to call them out more effectively isn’t a fact that can be checked, however.
Moderator Candy Crowley stirred up some controversy during the second presidential when she stepped in to correct presidential candidate Mitt Romney. When he questioned whether or not President Barack Obama called the attack on the Libyan consulate a terrorist attack, she informed him that Obama initially did, though the stories became muddled after that.
PolitiFact labeled the accusation “half-true,” agreeing with Crowley that although Obama initially used the words “act of terror” to describe the attack, the administration later doubled back on that claim, before finally returning to it. But how many people would have known that if it hadn’t been clarified during the debate itself?
Some decried this interruption as overstepping a moderator’s bounds, while others applauded the way it ended the back-and-forth “yes-I-did-no-you-didn’t” nature the candidates’ argument had devolved into.
I’m not here to argue for or against Crowley, but debates like these need more fact-checking during the debate itself.
Without an independent party to step in on disagreements, each debate ends with a stalemate. One side declares three studies have backed their plan, while another says those studies are false and that four have backed theirs.
How is the average viewer possibly supposed to know who is telling the truth?
While the aforementioned fact-checkers do exist for those that are seeking the information, there are many voters who don’t look past the debates themselves or the sound bites they might hear repeated on the news afterward. These people need to know when they’re being deceived, whether the deception is purposeful or accidental.
The moderator, as a journalist, has a responsibility to the audience to make sure the correct information is being given out, and to let politicians know they can’t get away with lies on national TV. This would obviously upset both political parties, but it would only mean that politicians would have to be more careful with what they say, and this would help curb the spread of misinformation.
Or, for those who wouldn’t want moderators to take on the delicate and time-consuming role of fact-checking during live debates, a small team off-camera dedicated to the task could alert the moderator when a falsehood occurs. Anything that would help keep the candidates honest.
Facts can be very nuanced and rhetoric tricky to cut through, so this would have to be done carefully. Some might say this could reveal bias in the moderator, but since politicians often repeat their speech comments in debates, many of these facts could be pre-checked, allowing the moderator to be prepared before the debate even begins.
If all these other suggestions were deemed unacceptable, you could have a small, separate fact team to determine the veracity of claims and then display them via text on-screen. The debate wouldn’t be interrupted but the truth would still be getting to the millions watching.
Political commentary has become about style. It’s time for a return to substance. It’s time to show the public when they’re being lied to by politicians.