Q: Who checks the fact checkers?

From "Fact-checking the 2020 vice presidential debate," The Washington Post

You do! The job doesn’t pay much but will keep you on your toes. You have to read fact-checking sites with the same critical eye that you read anything else in the news neighborhood.

Take this example from the Washington Post Fact Checker site regarding a statement Vice President Pence made during his recent debate with Senator Harris. He said: “They left the strategic national stockpile (of ventilators) empty. They left an empty and hollow plan.” 

The fact checkers at the WashPo concluded this statement was false.

Let’s double-check. Applying news literacy tools for sources (I’M VAIN) you can see how the site came to its determination:

Independent: They cited two government agencies, a New York Times article and the administration itself to prove that the Strategic National Stockpile was not empty.

Multiple: The mix of sources here, including the administration itself, provides a clear picture of the situation: There were 17,000 ventilators on hand when the pandemic hit full force in March 2020.

Verifiable: The Washington Post provides dates, hyperlinks and direct quotes for its sources, allowing the reader to track down the original sources. The Fact Checker also specifically addresses the second part of the statement, (“They left an empty and hollow plan”), calling it an opinion that isn’t verifiable, though they do link to an opinion journalism piece that refers to the matter.

Authoritative: Their government sources have direct control over the Strategic National Stockpile and have the knowledge to speak to its contents.

Informed: Here we have to make the assumption that whoever was speaking on behalf of the Department of Housing and Human Services had direct knowledge of what they had on hand.

Named: There are no specific individuals named in the fact check, however, department agencies are named.

Your lateral reading skills will show you that FactCheck.org and PolitiFact came up with a similar conclusion regarding this claim.

Result: The Washington Post Fact Checker correctly determined Pence’s statement about the national stockpile was false.

This level of skepticism will help you be a more engaged news consumer, which is ultimately good for news organizations. No one is infallible. No one is always right. 

Listen, we know it’s exhausting to keep your critical thinking skills fired up constantly. Sometimes we all want to sit back and consume media without thinking. You can do that when you are in the entertainment neighborhood, but when you are in the news neighborhood you have to stay alert. Just like when driving: In the passenger seat you can zone out all you want, but as the driver you need to be aware of who is in the crosswalk, listen for emergency sirens and keep your eyes on the road. It will eventually become a habit of the mind, which will put you in the driver’s seat when it comes to being informed and news literate.