Media fact-checking would prevent voter ignorance


It is probably a bit of an exaggeration to say this will be one of the most pivotal presidential elections in American history. Still, it definitely comes close and the winner of the election will have a massive influence on the direction that the country, and indeed the entire world, takes over the next four years.

The United States is, for better or worse, still the largest world power in terms of pure geopolitical influence; only China comes close and even it falls short economically, militarily and diplomatically. This means that the leader of the United States of America wields immense power, even restrained as they are by Congress and the Supreme Court.

The American people as a whole, by extension, have a surprising amount of influence in how the world will change, whether or not they want or care for it. What this means, ultimately, is that every citizen who casts a ballot in this election should do their utmost to ensure they have the proper knowledge, background and understanding to believe their vote is cast for the appropriate candidate.

In order to equip the American public to make well-educated, informed choices on election day, the media decided in 1960 to organize a televised debate for the first time.

The debate, which featured presidential hopefuls Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, was the beginning of a long tradition of presidential candidates coming before every American to present reasons why their platform is superior to that of their opponents.

Rather unsurprisingly, putting two politicians on a stage to face off against each other produces about as much useful information as a YouTube comment section. Rhetoric and mud-slinging are an obvious and probably unavoidable byproduct of such an arrangement, but until recently there was no good solution.

Nowadays, however, we have the technological capacity to alleviate, if not eliminate, the problem: fact-checking is now easier than ever. Anyone with politically active Facebook friends has probably come across a number of links to different websites which offer real time fact-checking of the debate. These sources issue corrections and clarifications when either candidate tries to exaggerate or lie.

Some of these are more reputable than others, but they are all probably a bit more reputable than the candidates themselves. The fact that instant, real-time fact-checking is available online for free raises a much more interesting question: why don’t the major news stations provide live fact-checking on the screen as they broadcast the presidential debates?

Technologically speaking, there are literally no impediments to it – we have the technology for the stations to offer instant fact-checking and display it on screen immediately for viewers across the country.

Logically, it seems almost necessary since candidates who told blatant lies on camera would immediately be called out and shamed in front of an audience of millions. In addition to public shaming, however, it would also mean that fallacious remarks interjected to grab voters who only watch the debates might occur.

A candidate trying to deceive the audience in order to exploit their ignorance about current events would find it impossible if every lie and hyperbole was revealed to the audience as soon as it was made.

Morally it is the job of the media to keep the public informed and educated on current events. This means more than just letting the candidates spout off propaganda and accusations, it means informing the public on which statements are based in reality and which are hogwash.

Allowing two politicians to attack each other on live TV more closely resembles monkeys flinging their own feces than to an educational and informative experience for the American viewership. It is the media’s job to help its viewers sort out the flying crap from the hard-hitting truths.

Just a few examples from tonight’s debates demonstrate how important it is to know when candidates are lying.

Trump, while discussing national security, specifically cybersecurity, mentioned that he received the endorsement of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), a group which had previously never given an endorsement to a presidential candidate.

It turns out that ICE did not break its habit of forgoing endorsements. Instead he received the endorsement of the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council, a union representing ICE agents, according to the Los Angeles Times and

Hillary claimed, in the midst of a discussion on race relations, that she was, “glad that we’re ending private prisons in the federal system.”

However, private prison usage is not being ended in the federal government. The Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons is transitioning away from private prisons, but the Department of Homeland Security has made no commitment to reducing private prison usage.

Perhaps more egregiously, Donald Trump asserted that he never claimed climate change was a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese. In fact he did, tweeting in 2012 that, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”

Another, even more outrageous claim made by Trump was that Clinton had been, “fighting ISIS [her] entire adult life.” Though the term “life” should be obvious, it wouldn’t hurt for the broadcaster to have pointed out that Clinton was born in 1947, while ISIS came into existence in 2014.

On a more positive note, both candidates also had bouts of truthfulness, which would have been rewarded by live fact-check. In a heated exchange on trade deals, Trump accused Clinton as backing the potential Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), even claiming that she called it the “gold standard” of trade deals. In fact, Clinton did say this in her book “Hard Choices,” but shifted her stance left during the primaries.

In response to Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, Clinton asserted that every presidential candidate for the past 40 years has done so. This is actually the case, and is a tradition that started in 1973 when presidential candidate, Richard Nixon, was audited by the IRS for suspicious charitable donations.

Nixon, and every candidate since, has released their tax returns as a means of showing that they are trustworthy. Only Gerald Ford, who became president when Nixon stepped down, entered office without releasing his tax returns.

Simple fact-checks on these and every other lie and hyperbole in the debate would have gone a long way towards making the debate more informative and reliable.

Instead, both candidates managed to present an inaccurate and inherently biased view of facts and figures which supports their cause. The biggest objection to providing such live fact-checking is easily the potential for the bias of the broadcasters to leak into the fact-checking.

If the fact-checking is handled by individuals or even stations which lean left or right, the on-screen fact-checking may actually exacerbate the situation by allowing one candidate to slip lies through the cracks and making the other seem like more of a liar than they really are.

Moreover, it may lead viewers devoted to one candidate or the other to abuse the news station for accusing the candidate of lying. Both of these are very valid concerns, particularly the former.

It is commonly known that bias exists in every news organization, and the fear that this bias may corrupt the fact-checking process is logical. However, appropriate steps may be taken to ensure only the facts are displayed during the debate.

First and foremost, only claims of fact should be fact-checked. If a candidate claims that, under a certain program, crime was reduced by some amount, that is a question of fact. It does not matter what bias the news source has when it comes to checking FBI statistics.

Similarly, when a candidate claims that their opponent made a certain statement then there is either proof this is true or there isn’t, no bias can enter into determining this, if the effort is made in good faith.

When it comes to matters of opinion and interpretation, the news would obviously stay quiet. Indicating the veracity of a candidates statistical claim, for example that we have lost some number of jobs to a foreign country, is different from claiming that these losses are due to whatever the candidate is blaming it on.

The key point here is that it is the job of the news media to keep the public informed and educated on current events. It is especially important in the context of a presidential election in which the American populace chooses the next leader of a major world power for the next four years.

Although bias is certainly a possible problem, the real goal of live fact-checking isn’t to provide interpretation, it is to provide fact, and to hold the candidates responsible for what they say. Facts, supported by hard evidence, leave little room for bias.

Of course, it would still be up to the viewer to correctly interpret the facts and fully understand the candidates’ platforms.

However, viewers would be far more well-equipped to accurately understand and analyze the candidates platforms, and make a good decision at the voting booth, if candidates were forced to be more transparent and truthful.

At the end of the day, a functional democracy is encouraged by news sources, which hold politicians to a higher standard and ensure they account for their lies.


Leave a Reply