What impact has fact-checking had on the media?

Fake news has arguably been the most prominent trend of the last twelve months, and the desire to hold publishers and other leading figures to account has prompted the rise in a wide range of fact checking services that aim to show what is real from what is not.

A recent study from Boston University College of Communication suggests that such services have done little to improve the quality of reporting.

The authors examined approximately three years worth of data on fake news, using models to explore the relationship between fake news and the online news media.  In total, they examined seven fact-checking websites: PolitiFact.com, FactCheck.org, Snopes, Climate Feedback, Gossip Cop, Health News Review, and Wafflesatnoon.com.

The influence of fake news

The report found that fake news stories have a significant impact on the kind of news organizations report, especially in more partisan publications, who often have a reciprocal relationship with fake news in the sense that they both influence fake news, and are themselves influenced by it.  What’s more, fact checkers appeared to have minimal impact on the kind of news that was reported.

This latter point is especially strange, as fact-checking services have seldom had as much publicity as in recent times, especially around the various political campaigns unfolding around the world in the past few years.  It seems however that there’s a distinct difference between mention fact-checkers here and there, and actually using it to ensure reports are accurate.

That’s not to say that the phenomenon is being ignored, it’s far too significant for that, but publishers have to be wary of the amount of time they devote to the task, with that opportunity cost diverting time from covering other stories.  Equally however, publishers are also devoting time to covering fake news.

“We argued that these media could have devoted the resources they used to cover fake news to other more important issues. We believe no matter how media cover the fake news, they do drive people’s attention to the fake news, therefore in some way helping distribute the fake news,” the authors say.

The study also has some takeaways for the fact checkers themselves, as they tend to focus primarily at the moment on what politicians say rather than on what the news outlets themselves say.

“Our results showed that fact-checkers did not follow other news media, including fake news websites, for issues of coverage. So I think they might want to spend more time fact-checking news covered by certain media (e.g., partisan media), not just claims made by politicians,” the authors say.

One thing is for sure, it seems a battle with some way to go yet.