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Fact-Checking the Presidential Candidates Is More Important Than Ever

By Larry Margasak
Photos by Gage Skidmore via flickr. Used under Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Larry Margasak, a retired Associated Press reporter, examines the impact of fact-checking in the 2016 presidential race.

If you believe the importance of fact-checking has been diminished by the disdain shown for it by Republican front-runner Donald Trump and his supporters, think again. The public is paying greater attention than ever to this crucial part of journalism this election season, research shows.

The continued prominence of fact-checking means that as students contemplate becoming voters, they’ll be able to look to this vital tool to evaluate candidates and decide whom they can trust.

Trump has given fact-checking journalists multiple shots of adrenaline. He has kept them busy countering a stream of unsupportable statements — from his claim in June that Mexico is sending its rapists and drug dealers to the United States to his assertion in October that the federal government is accepting 200,000 Syrian refugees (a figure he increased the next month to 250,000). And no one has found any evidence to corroborate Trump’s contention in November that “thousands and thousands of people” in Jersey City, N.J., were cheering on Sept. 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center towers came down.

But Trump never backs off his statements, even when they are shown to be false — and his poll numbers remain high.

To be sure, just about every presidential candidate gets something wrong, and this has certainly been true in the 2016 presidential campaign. And Trump is by no means the only candidate who has doubled down on a misstatement or exaggeration when called on it by fact-checkers.

For example, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont — a self-described “democratic socialist” who is running for the Democratic nomination — has repeatedly uttered a form of this statement: “We live in a nation which has more income and more wealth inequality than any other major country.” A Washington Post fact-check found that while the U.S. does have a significant gap between rich and poor, it is not No. 1 in the world.

So it’s fair to ask: Does fact-checking still matter?

To understand why it does, you have to know whom the fact-checkers are trying to reach. Hint: It’s not Donald Trump, or his impressive number of diehard supporters who are standing by their man no matter what he says.

“Our intended audience is made up of those voters who want to base their decisions on accurate information,” said Brooks Jackson, a longtime journalist who started FactCheck.org at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center in 2003 and is now its director emeritus. “So the more malarkey being peddled by politicians, the greater the need for what we do.”

“I don’t write this stuff for politicians,” Glenn Kessler, the lead author of The Washington Post’s Fact Checker column, told the American Press Institute (API). “Politicians are going to do what they’re going to do. The point of the fact-checks is to inform the voters.”

In a Dec. 21, 2015 post for API’s Fact-Checking Project, API research manager Jane Elizabeth wrote that voters are reading and absorbing what fact-checkers are reporting.

An API-sponsored study, she noted, showed that people exposed to fact-checking articles had an 11-percentage-point increase in their knowledge of relevant facts compared to those who did not see such articles. The articles were especially effective among those who already had a high level of political knowledge.

And that’s not all: That same study also found that 8 in 10 people have a favorable view of fact-checking. For those more familiar with politics and accountability reporting, the number rises to 9 in 10.

How, then, to explain the unflinching support of Trump’s legions despite all the evidence contradicting some of his most dramatic assertions?

Michelle A. Amazeen, an assistant professor of advertising at Rider University and an American Press Institute researcher, offers one answer.

“Generally, people assess a message based on whether the messenger is ‘one of them,’” she wrote in a post for The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, which examines political research. “Beyond being ineffective, correcting claims about a highly controversial issue can actually backfire. People who are diehard believers hold their beliefs even more firmly when those beliefs are challenged.”

Another explanation comes from Emily Thorson, an assistant professor of political science at Boston College. She wrote in a Jan. 8, 2016, opinion piece in The Washington Post: “My research shows that even successfully corrected misinformation creates ‘belief echoes’: effects on attitudes that persist even when you know that a piece of information is false.”

Trump may not care what fact-checkers say, but other candidates apparently do — at least sometimes.

For example, Sanders said on June 11: “A black male baby born today, if we do not change the system, stands a 1 in 3 chance of ending up in jail.” The Post’s Kessler traced the numbers to a 2003 Justice Department study that used incarceration figures from 2001. The study has not been updated, but Kessler found an expert who said the odds of incarceration for black men today are more likely to be 1 in 4.

During the second Democratic debate in November, Sanders used this figure. “According to the statistics that I’m familiar with,” he said, “a black male baby born today stands a 1 in 4 chance of ending up in the criminal justice system.” (And Kessler praised him for making that change.)

On March 2, 2015, The New York Times reported that Democrat Hillary Clinton had exclusively used a personal email account, on a private server, to conduct government business during her four years as secretary of state. When asked during a March 10 news conference if she had ever been specifically briefed about the security implications of using a personal account to email the president, she replied, “I did not email any classified material to anyone on my email. There is no classified material. So I’m certainly well aware of the classification requirements.”

On July 24, the inspectors general for the intelligence community and the State Department said in a statement that four emails containing classified information were found among a limited sample of 40 emails provided by Clinton. They said the emails did not contain classified markings, but had been classified when they were generated and “should never have been transmitted via an unclassified personal system.”

While campaigning in Iowa on Aug. 15 and in an Associated Press interview on Sept. 7, Clinton modified her remarks to move closer to the inspector generals’ findings. She said in August: “Most importantly, I never sent classified material on my email, and I never received any that was marked classified,” In the AP interview she said: “I did not send or receive any information marked classified.”

Or take Republican candidate Ben Carson, a pediatric neurosurgeon who surged in the polls for a time last year. In his case, when he modified a statement that had been proven false, it only made matters worse.

Seeking to demonstrate that his political inexperience should not be considered a shortcoming, he said, “Every signer of the Declaration of Independence had no elected office experience.”

In response, PolitiFact, a Pulitzer Prize-winning project of the Tampa Bay (Fla.) Times, provided a list of 28 signers (out of 56) who had served in a variety of offices — most as members of elected legislative bodies in 11 of the 13 colonies.

Carson’s modification: “Every signer of the Declaration of Independence had no federal elected office experience.”

The problem: There was no federal government until 1789 — 13 years after the Declaration was signed.

Jackson, of FactCheck.org, said that Trump’s insistence that he’s always right and the fact-checkers are wrong is nothing new.

“We have always faced scorn from extreme ideologues when we puncture their delusions,” he said of the fact-checking efforts. “But we take great pains to make sure our facts are right, and in the rare cases when we make a mistake we correct it promptly and transparently. That won’t change.”