Theses Doctoral

Deciding What's True: Fact-Checking Journalism and the New Ecology of News

Graves, Lucas

This dissertation studies the new class of political fact-checkers, journalists who specialize in assessing the truth of public claims -- and who, it is argued, constitute a professional reform movement reaching to the center of the elite US news media. In less than a decade this emergent genre of news has become a basic feature of political coverage. It figures prominently in national debates and commands the direct attention of elite political actors, who respond publicly to the fact-checkers and dedicate staff to dealing with them, especially during electoral campaigns. This study locates fact-checking in a wider practice of "annotative journalism," with precursors in the muckraking tradition in American news, which has come into flower in an online media environment characterized by promiscuous borrowing and annotation. Participant observation and content analysis are used together to examine the day-to-day work of the news organizations leading the fact-checking movement. This approach documents the specific and forceful critique of conventional journalistic practice which the fact-checkers enact in their newswork routines and in their public and private discourse. Fact-checkers are a species of practical epistemologists, who seek to reform and thus to preserve the objectivity norm in American journalism, even as their daily work runs up against the limits of objective factual analysis. In politics, they acknowledge, "facts can be subjective." Fact-checkers are also active participants in an emerging news ecosystem in which stories develop, and authority is constructed, in patterns of citation and annotation across discursive networks of media and political actors. This study demonstrates how attention to these media-political networks subtly informs and constrains the work of producing objective assessments of factual claims. And it suggests that the objective status of the fact-checkers themselves can be seen as a function of their position in media-political networks, reproduced in formal and informal partnerships and, most immediately, in the pattern of outlets which cite and quote and link to them. This perspective helps to account for the surprising limits of the political critique offered by professional fact-checkers, who argue for a more honest, fearless journalism but carefully avoid the largest and most controversial political conclusions that emerge from their own work. In seeking to redefine objective practice for a changed media environment, the new genre of fact-checking underscores the essentially defensive nature of what has been called the "strategic ritual" of journalistic objectivity.


  • thumnail for Graves_columbia_0054D_11116.pdf Graves_columbia_0054D_11116.pdf application/pdf 13.8 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Schudson, Michael S
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 25, 2013