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Study: Politicians More Honest if They Know Fact-Checkers are Watching

According to a new study by Dartmouth and Georgia State Universities studying the behavior of state legislators, the mere presence of fact-checkers induces politicians to make more accurate statements.

The study tracked almost 1,200 candidates during the 2012 election, in nine states with state-specific PolitiFacts affiliates.

Some potential legislators received letters informing them they were part of a study involving fact checkers, and warning that negative fact-checking stories could adversely affect their reputations; some received placebo letters simply informing them of a study, without reference to fact-checking. Those that received a detailed letter were 55% less likely to get demerits from fact-checking organizations; those in the control group were three times more likely to incur a negative rating, or have their statements questioned by media in general:

“When you remind people about the threat that fact-checking might pose to their political career, there’s less indication of their being inaccurate,” said Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan. “The threat of fact-checking probably matters.”

It does not appear the authors were testing for how accurate any given politician may or may not have been before the study, merely whether the knowledge of watching eyes had any impact on a politician’s behavior from that moment forward.

The authors also found it was rare for local and state legislators to be fact-checked. “Among the 1169 legislators in our sample, only 23 received ratings from PolitiFact state affiliates (2.0%),” the authors wrote. “The states that were the most competitive in the presidential race (Florida, Ohio, and Virginia) did not publish any fact-checks of state legislators during this period, suggesting that the ad wars being waged in the states by the Obama and Romney campaigns diverted the focus of factcheckers away from lower-level officials.”

The authors wondered if the effect was larger than what they measured, as even those who got a letter were unlikely to fully understand the ramifications of fact checkers. “If the negative consequences of inaccurate statements were salient and accessible to all elites, the potential effects on their behavior would likely be even larger,” the authors wrote.

Read the details of the study HERE.

[h/t WaPo]

[Image via screengrab]

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