Why Democracy needs journalists, lesson #47

In between all the fancy academic language, there’s a lesson in the recently released study by a Dartmouth and a University of Essex professor: Politicians don’t lie as much when they know journalists are watching them.

Here’s the abstract of the research paper, “The Effect of Fact-checking on Elites: A field experiment on U.S. state legislators,” by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler:

Does external monitoring improve democratic performance? Fact-checking has come to play an increasingly important role in political coverage in the United States, but research suggests it may be ineffective at reducing public misperceptions about controversial issues. However, fact-checking might instead help improve political discourse by increasing the reputational costs or risks of spreading misinformation for political elites. To evaluate this deterrent hypothesis, we conducted a field experiment in nine U.S. states in which a randomly assigned group of state legislators were sent a series of letters about the risks to their reputation and electoral security if they are caught making questionable statements. The legislators who were sent these letters were substantially less likely to receive a negative fact-checking rating or to have their accuracy questioned publicly, suggesting that the threat posed by fact-checking can reduce inaccuracy in statements made by political elites. 

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