PolitiFact gets checked by academic study, is shown to deter falsehoods

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The Tampa Bay Times’ PolitiFact project has earned a Pulitzer and plenty of accolades, but here is one that could not have been said before: its work actually deters outright falsehoods. 

Political scientists Brendan Nyhan at Dartmouth and Jason Reifler at the University of Exeter conducted a field experiment to test whether state legislators mislead the public less when they are aware that fact-checkers are watching. Turns out, this is so.

Nyhan and Reifler looked at a group of randomly selected state legislators in nine states, including Florida, that have PolitiFact affiliates, and divided them into three treatment groups.  One group received letters informing them about the study and reminding them about the work of PolitiFact. A second group were sent letters informing about the study without mention of PolitiFact. A third group got no letters at all.

Then, during the 2012 election cycle, Nyhan and Reifler watched for PolitiFact ratings. During that time, the group of legislators who had been reminded about PolitiFact were 55 percent less likely to get a negative rating from the organization, and the odds that their statements were questions by PolitiFact or other media fell by a dramatic 75 percent.

That said, it is rare for state legislators to be fact-checked. Just 23 (2%) of the 1,169 legislators in this study were subject to a fact check at all.  

And maybe that is enough.  Maybe knowing that watchdogs are out there is all it takes to foster more honest dialogue. 

Here is a follow-up study that Nyhan and Reifler could do with their data: controlling for other factors, did being fact-checked matter for the election outcomes or vote margins for these 23?  

“While fact-checking of state legislators is still regrettably rare, these results suggest  that state legislators who are reminded of  the electoral and reputational threat from fact-checking do change their behavior,” Nyhan and Reifler conclude.

How would PolitiFact rate the truthiness of this study?  A safe guess, not ‘Pants on Fire’.

Karen Cyphers, PhD, is a public policy researcher, political consultant, and mother to three daughters. She can be reached at karen@cyphersgroup.com.