Sunday, September 16, 2012

Cathy Young: "But who fact-checks the fact-checkers?"

I was surprised yet pleased to see a PolitiFact-related criticism in the Star Tribune, traditionally a liberal newspaper.

Cathy Young's "But who fact-checks the fact-checkers?" was written for Newsday and treads on some familiar ground, namely fact checks of Paul Ryan regarding the closing of the GM plant in Janesville and allegations that the Obama administration "gutted" the back-to-work provisions in the Welfare reform bill signed by President Clinton in the 1990s.

Young doesn't expand much beyond past criticisms of the corresponding fact checks but very aptly describes one of PolitiFact's foundational problems:
Especially on complex policy issues, facts are rarely just facts. Is Obama's health care law a "government takeover" of health care, or merely an expansion of government's role? Would Ryan's Medicare reform plan represent the "end" of Medicare, or merely an overhaul? Is rhetorical exaggeration a lie? Is an out-of-context statement false?
Young's questions lead the reader toward a point we make repeatedly at PolitiFact Bias:  PolitiFact often reaches well past the bounds of objective fact checking to judging the limits of rhetoric.  The same impulse that leads PolitiFact to grade clearly hyperbolic statements as "False" or worse leads PolitiFact to make judgments as to whether politicians provide sufficient context with otherwise true statements.

Are such judgments within the purview of journalistic fact checking?  Arguably so, yet not without a label to ensure that readers know they're reading news analysis or even opinion.
— Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.
Credit to Young for a solid article and credit to Newsday and the Star Tribune for publishing it.  Young's story is especially good for introducing readers to the Janesville and Welfare reform fact checks.  Those unfamiliar with those stories will get a concise and accurate treatment by reading the whole of Young's story.

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