After 2016: Planning for a ‘post-fact-checking’ era

The 2016 presidential race has, at long last, illustrated the clear and urgent need for journalists to be more than stenographers or writers of milquetoast, “he-said-she-said” missives that regardless won’t satisfy the true believers of Fox News’ “fair-and-balanced” fiction. The election suddenly elevated the importance of fact checking and, even, for the still-sadly small number of journalism’s boldest, to call a lie a lie.

Unfortunately, it required the unrelenting and nightmarish ugliness of an orange-faced, hate-filled, grotesquely unqualified GOP nominee to get to that point, when journalism ideally was always supposed to have started at that position in the first place.

Yes, hack reporters and yellow journalism have been with us throughout the modern era. But the gold standard for reporting — truth-telling, shining a light on the darkness, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable — has been clear from the start nonetheless.

And yet still, even some at the very top have seemed to need reminding. Why, for example, did it take Trump to refresh The New York Times’ memory on “how to write the paragraph that said, ‘This is just false,’ “? as executive editor Dean Baquet put it recently in an interview. Why should that ever have been a struggle?

Short answer: It shouldn’t have been.

Anyway, here we are, with “fact checking” suddenly in vogue, at least in some circles. But you know what? Fact checking, while important, isn’t enough and won’t be enough going forward into what looks to be a difficult future. Because it’s always been the case for some people that the facts don’t matter.

“Maybe we didn’t know the details,” said Burt Lancaster’s character Ernst Janning in the 1961 film, “Judgment at Nuremberg.” “But if we didn’t know, it was because we didn’t want to know.”

And therein lies the problem with an emphasis on fact checking alone: For various other reasons, the facts — no matter how many you might assemble and muster to your defense — simply won’t move the needle of opinion among some (perhaps even most) people. The underlying cause of this phenomenon is something called “motivated reasoning.”

Here’s how Yale law and psychology professor Dan Kahan described it in 2011, using the related term, “motivated cognition”:

“[M]otivated cognition refers to the unconscious tendency of individuals to fit their processing of information to conclusions that suit some end or goal. Consider a classic example. In the 1950s, psychologists asked experimental subjects, students from two Ivy League colleges, to watch a film that featured a set of controversial officiating calls made during a football game between teams from their respective schools. The students from each school were more likely to see the referees’ calls as correct when it favored their school than when it favored their rival. The researchers concluded that the emotional stake the students had in affirming their loyalty to their respective institutions shaped what they saw on the tape.”

Scientists who study the way the human mind works understand that we are not fundamentally rational thinkers, however much we might believe we are. So while fact-checking is a good feature for any journalistic outlet — and I hope it continues — going forward after the election, fact-checking alone won’t be enough. Considering the brink we’ve been pushed to as a society during this election, we have a responsibility to do more.

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