Thursday, December 15, 2011

Beyond PolitiFact

Milwaukee Magazine's Erick Gunn ruminates on the inconsistency of PolitiFact and other fact checking organizations. His point of departure is the apparent inconsistency between its rating of statements that Paul Ryan's "Roadmap" would end Medicare ("pants on fire" said PolitiFact) and Tommy Thompson's claim to have ended welfare (rated as "true.)

 I am sympathetic. "PolitiFact" was developed by the St. Petersburg Times and is operated in partnership with other media outlets including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. It's innovation - if that's what it is  -  is a "Truth-O-Meter" resembling what the Weekly Standard's Mark Hemingway calls an "old school instrument gauge" complete with red, yellow and green lights as well as flames for those statement rated "pants on fire."

 I think it's crazy to say that Ryan's plan ends Medicare (the ad showing a Ryan-like figure pushing grandma off the cliff was reprehensible misrepresentation on a par with the worst of our political advertising) and an overstatement to say that welfare reform "ended" welfare. So while I don't agree that the degree of accuracy of the statements is the same, I do think that the characterizations of them represented by PolitiFact's cute little graphics are further apart than they ought to be.

Gunn refers to Hemingway's recent fiscing of "fact checking" in the Weekly Standard. I just got my copy on dead tree and read it. Hemingway makes a convincing case that media fact checking succumbs to the lack of ideological diversity in the traditional media and an unwillingness to treat as opinions those things that are opinion and to allow for the complexity of issues and the limitations of human language and every day discourse. Its simplistic set of conclusions - reflected in PolitiFact as "pants on fire," etc. - themselves require distortion

I have been concerned about this for awhile but was moved to write by PolitiFact's contorted treatment of  a statement by Media Trackers that was clearly "true" as "false."

 Hemingway cites a University of Minnesota study that provides overwhelming evidence that PolitiFact has a pro-Democratic bias. My impression is that the local operation is more even handed but my problem is independent of any claim of bias. It's one thing to vet a statement and let readers know about it's strengths and weaknesses. It's quite another to reduce that analysis to a simple set of conclusions.

The former might be useful. The latter is not. Doing the former does not require the PolitiFact brand. The Journal Sentinel - assuming it has the reporters -  could avoid paying whatever skim it owes to the guys in St. Petersburg.

I understand that railing against the simple mindedness of PolitiFact is like holding back the wind. We like simple little graphics. But I think the problem is deeper than that.

While the customary thing is to rail against the "unwashed" who supposedly want simple answers and others to think for them, I think that PolitiFact is most misused by opinion leaders who are fully aware of its limitations. It is a source of "gotchas" that is I(back to bias) distorted by the ideological proclivities of the journalists who write it - a distortion that is reflected not only in the analysis of particular questions but in the selection of which questions to analyze.

I'd prefer the paper limit itself to straight reporting. As Hemingway points out that wouldn't solve the problems with "fact checking," but it would make them more manageable.

As for PolitFact's rating system, I rate it "Useless."

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

I agree.

I find their ratings to be quite inconsistent.
Politifact's ratings are based on their 'picking apart' statements, rating each 'part', and averaging the sum of those individual ratings to arrive at a final rating as a whole.

In my opinion, a statement is an individual statement. Rate the statement 'as stated!'

I do appreciate that Politifact cites their sources. One can refer to those sources to arrive at one's own 'rating'.

The one 'con' to that; they do not publish, in entirety, their own interviews cited as sources pertaining to their 'ratings.'

Bryan said...

a University of Minnesota study that provides overwhelming evidence that PolitiFact has a pro-Democratic bias

Dead on except for the above. Ostermeier's study does not provide overwhelming evidence of PolitiFact's pro-Democratic bias. It provides a strong evidence of selection bias (which could harm Republicans more without being specifically ideological), but Ostermeier was correct in stating that it is possible that Republicans simply lie more. His point was that it's reasonable to presume a selection bias unless PolitiFact does something to control for it (don't hold your breath).

Your take on the comparison between ending Medicare and ending Welfare was pretty much perfect.

"Anonymous" wrote:

The one 'con' to that; they do not publish, in entirety, their own interviews cited as sources pertaining to their 'ratings.'

I certainly don't agree that's the only "con," but you make a great point. PolitiFact Texas has, on occasion, posted portions of email interviews. It's not in a particularly clear format, but it's something (look up "Pete Sepp").

John Foust said...

That darn so-called "reality"! It always seems to have a bias against Republicans.

Rick Esenberg said...

It is possible that Republicans lie more than Democrats. It is also implausible.

Anonymous said...

Short version: Ideological/partisan hacks don't like being called out.

No duh.

It always amuses me when the two sides fight over who lies/distorts/
fantasizes/deludes more or worse.

Talk about delusion: you people actually think you have the high road. No wonder getting called out on your b.s. is tough to deal with.

John Foust said...

Perhaps some right-wing Daddy Warbucks should fund the development of a handful of media oversight organizations.

Oh, wait. They did. That hasn't turned out so well, as those organizations have recently and repeatedly demonstrated themselves to be far more slipshod than the newspapers. I guess that's why you're not suggesting that Media Trackers or McGuyver or WPRI is doing a better job of attempting to even-handedly exposed the distortions of the right and the left.

But back in the day at the Badger Herald, we kept Tom Kertscher on the sports beat. Now he's worked his way up to Politifact.

Media Trackers did try to disparage WisconsinWatch by linking them to George Soros (and therefore the Nazis, they said) for having received funds for a budget analysis project. Can anyone imagine Media Trackers / Wisconsin Reporter / McGuyver / WPRI publishing anything (article or commentary) that would cast a negative light on a major Republican organization, in the same way WisconsinWatch criticized OneWisconsinNow?

Implausible? What sort of evidence would convince you?

Rick Esenberg said...

I guess I missed the negative tone in the profile of OneWisconsinNow.

I am not persuaded that MacIver, Media Trackers and the Wisconsin Reporter are less accurate than older media outlets. I will say that, at least with respect to the latter two, there is a a clear editorial policy but at least that policy is clear.

For a variety of reasons, stemming from technological changes,we are, whether we like it or not, headed toward a journalism that is more democratic and competitive than credentialed and authoritative.

If things like PolitFact want to push back against that, they are going to have do better.

Anon 6:19

I am not interested in arguing about who "lie/distorts/fantazizes/deludes" more and I have no idea who "you people" are supposed to be.

I think there are people on the left and right who have credibility notwithstanding their perspectives. There are others who don't. I'd rather focus on the speaker that what side they are on.

George Mitchell said...

On the plus side, Politifact often provides helpful in-depth analysis. Some of the regular reporters (Borowski, Umhoefer, et.al) are competent.

The rating system is dumb. Supposedly, the MJS must abide by it as a requirement of being part of the Politifact family.

While purporting to be objective and thorough, Politifact exempts one institution from scrutiny. Namely, the Journal Sentinel. Thus, highly subjective assertions and selective omissions by the news staff are off limits for Politifact. This is consistent with the culture in most traditional newsrooms, where the admission of error is largely verboten.

Dad29 said...

Following on George's remark, another pundit has suggested that Politifact (and the AP "fact check" cousin) are merely instruments used by the MSM to regain its former place as the Dispenser of All News.

IOW, it's a rear-guard op.

It's also far too late.

John Foust said...

Dad29, you can be remarkably relativist and non-absolutist when it suits you. It's almost like you don't think it is possible that anyone could or should strive to be objective and determine whether a statement was true or false.

garage mahal said...

I would love to see a Politifact type lie analysis filter in real time. So when Reince Priebus says "Wisconsin is literally riddled with voter fraud", his words would be replaced with dead air silence.

Was Priebus lying or just stupid when he said that? And which is worse? One thing is for sure, Walker and WIGOP do not trust Wisconsin citizens.

Anonymous said...

"For a variety of reasons, stemming from technological changes,we are, whether we like it or not, headed toward a journalism that is more democratic and competitive than credentialed and authoritative."

This is rich. What we have today emerging on the right is a series of megaphone-owners who each parrot what the other says, with no or little apparent regard for the truth.

The ladies on the North Avenue Bridge aren't old enough to sign the recall papers! The video goes viral. Chuckles Sykes, Mark Belling, the MacIver Institute, Media Trackers, and the other non-journalistic wingnut sychophants all rebroadcast and cite each other.

The story turns out to be totally false. Does the real story ever come out in the right-wing trash press? Of course not as the "journalists" move on to the next non- pseudo-story.

This is progress?

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