I’ve been harping a lot lately on the fact-checkers, like PolitiFact, and how they too often fall for a type of phony journalistic “balance” that those of us who practice science journalism as a trade have long abhorred.
And then it occurred to me: Maybe the deep difference between science journalism and political journalism is part of the core reason why political fact-checkers seem so often to do their job as if politics is a horse race–striving to regularly ding Democrats, even when Republicans are really ginning up the vast majority of the most severe and systemic political falsehoods.
After all, as a science journalist, I’ve come to denounce media “balance” on issues like evolution and global warming precisely because…well, because I know how to report on the science of evolution and global warming. And knowing how to report on that science has, in turned, shown me how solid our body of knowledge in these areas really is—and thus, how extensively out of touch conservatives are.
But learning how to practice journalism in this way—well, that takes some doing. It doesn’t happen overnight; it’s a journalistic speciality.
So if political fact checkers don’t really know much about how to report on science—one of the chief areas in which Democrats and Republicans are unequal when it comes to spewing misinformation—then perhaps it's no wonder they're so prone to falling for phony “balance.” They simply haven’t had the behavior drilled out of their heads enough, through reporting on issues where “balance” just isn't an option.
I wanted to test this idea, so here’s what I did. I went to PolitiFact and searched its archives for the word “evolution,” just to see how often the site had grappled with a very prominent scientific issue where Republicans and conservatives have an overwhelming tendency to be factually incorrect and make false claims–and where, by any stretch, a “balanced” approach is utterly inappropriate.