This is the latest installment in my ongoing project to create a syllabus for a to-be-taught-in-the-future graduate seminar on propaganda. When I get a critical mass of these posts I’ll compile into a summary post, and at the end I’ll publish a complete syllabus.

This one focuses on the rise of “fact checking” by the media and the growing number of outlets which purport to serve as arbiters of truth by evaluating claims made in political debates.

In the jargon of my book, The Honest Broker, the notion of fact-checking is roughly equivalent to what I call “science arbitration.” I argue in the book, and will again in the 2nd edition, that science arbitration is difficult to do well, but that the expert community has done a nice job over many decades improving processes for gaining consensus on empirical claims. Organizations like the National Research Council in the US typically do an excellent job assessing the state of knowledge on particular questions of relevant to policy debates.

At the same time, science arbitration done poorly increases the odds of politicized knowledge and the waging of partisan battles through competing claims about facts. It is easy for fact checkers to cherrypick or play overt partisan politics in their work. Financial and other conflicts can raise questions about the fidelity of fact checking. And fact checkers themselves are subject to being fact checked.

Fact checkers in the media thus work in a minefield. I understand the urge to fact check (I do it all the time, see my Twitter feed!), but it is one thing to claim to be the ultimate arbiter of truth and quite another to present a claim backed by evidence as part of a ongoing conversation about contested interpretations of reality.

The articles selected below are chosen to reflect these issues, as well as some of the history and impact of fact checkers in the media. As ever, I welcome your suggestions to these readings. The next entry will be on “fake news.”