In a post yesterday, NYU journalism prof/blogger Jay Rosen argued for more fact-checking in political journalism, citing a Greg Sargent post reporting that the AP's fact-checks are the most popular articles that the wire service publishes:
Fact checking is good journalism. Journalists should take a lesson from the success of the fact-checking site, Politfact.com. I have already written extensively about this one, so there is no need to repeat myself.
But don’t do it unless you are willing to do what Politifact does: tell us when a political actor is lying, or speaking falsely. Drop the pretense that there must be deception in equal measure on both sides of the partisan ledger—a lie for a lie, and untruth for an untruth—just because we, the journalists, need to show how even handed we are. The AP has started doing it, and as Greg Sargent reported, “Their fact-checking efforts are almost uniformly the most clicked and most linked pieces they produce. Journalistic fact-checking with authority, it turns out, is popular.”
I agree with the sentiment, but Rosen is overstating the case -- if fact-checks were unambiguously popular, they'd be a far more common practice. However, based on my experience with Spinsanity and research on correcting misperceptions, I'd expect that the online popularity of fact-checks is in large part driven by bloggers and readers who want to see their political opponents be discredited. As Jason Reifler and I showed (PDF), people aren't generally receptive to corrections of politicians on their side of the political spectrum. This isn't a direct problem for the AP, which provides content to other outlets, but a newspaper or website runs the risk of antagonizing half of its audience with each fact-check. That's the principal reason the practice is so rare.
(For more on how economic incentives shape news content, see Jay Hamilton's excellent book All the News That's Fit to Sell.)