Friday, August 26, 2016

A partisan coin flip for PolitiFact Florida?

A former staffer at the Cleveland Plain Dealer (the one-time PolitiFact Ohio affiliate) said the difference between one rating and another often amounted to a coin flip.

Such coin flips provide a golden opportunity for bias to swing the vote in one of PolitiFact's "star chamber" judgment sessions.

PolitiFact Florida gives us a wonderfully illustrative pair of examples:

Alan Grayson (D) vs  Patrick Murphy (D), May 16, 2016

Democrat Alan Grayson charged fellow Democrat and senate primary opponent Patrick Murphy with voting in favor of the House Benghazi committee. PolitiFact found Grayson's claim "Mostly  True." It would have been simply "True" except Grayson neglected to mention that Murphy defended his vote by saying he wanted the committee to clear Hillary Clinton's name.

Patrick Murphy (D) vs Marco Rubio (R), August 24, 2016

Democrat Patrick Murphy (same Patrick Murphy from the example above) charged Republican incumbent senatorial candidate Marco Rubio with voting against the Violence Against Women Act. PolitiFact Florida rated Murphy's claim "True," while pointing out that Rubio objected to changes made to the Act when it was submitted for reauthorization. Rubio said he favored the original wording.

But ... but ... but ...

We often encounter one knee-jerk defense when we compare two different and inconsistent ratings from PolitiFact: The circumstances were different!

Yes, the circumstances are always at least somewhat different when comparing two different fact checks. It's the difference between the two that makes them two different fact checks in the first place. The difference in circumstance only serves as a defense against the charge of inconsistency if the difference serves as a good explanation for the difference in ratings.

Grayson made a compound charge against Murphy, while Murphy made a simple charge against Rubio. That's a difference, but it only makes explaining the different ratings more difficult. PolitiFact Florida made no complaint against Grayson's charge that Murphy was in a small group of Democrats voting for the Benghazi committee. Averaging that "true" part of the rating with the less-true "voted for" part of the rating makes the latter even lower when considered by itself.

The difference in this case relies entirely on whatever criteria PolitiFact Florida used to figure out when it is okay to leave out context.

Coin flip?


PolitiFact has published definitions of its ratings. Two definitions are relevant to our comparison:
TRUE – The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.
MOSTLY TRUE – The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.
From the two definitions above, it follows that Grayson's statement about Murphy needed clarification or additional information. Murphy's statement about Rubio, in contrast, had nothing significant missing.

It was significant that Murphy claimed his vote was intended to defend Clinton.

It was insignificant that Rubio claimed he supported the Violence Against Women Act minus the objectionable amendments.

Was this a pair of coin flips both won by Murphy?

The call for transparency


The Poynter Institute, which owns PolitiFact, supports the idea that fact checkers ought to exhibit transparency. In that spirit of transparency, we contacted the writer and editor of both fact checks to ask how they objectively determined when it was okay to leave out context.
The two of you collaborated on a parallel pair of fact checks dealing with charges that a candidate voted for a certain bill.

In one case Alan Grayson charged that Patrick Murphy voted to establish the House Benghazi committee. Your fact check found Murphy had made the vote but said he did it to clear Clinton. The fact check said Grayson should have included that context and dropped Grayson's rating down to "Mostly True."

In the second case the same Murphy said Marco Rubio voted against the Violence Against Women Act. Your fact check found Rubio had opposed the Act with his vote but he said he supported the original version of the bill (without amendments added for its re-authorization). The fact check rated Murphy's statement "True," implying that Murphy was at no fault for omitting Rubio's support for the original version of the VAWA.

In the interest of journalistic transparency (which I know PolitiFact publicly champions):

How does an objective and nonpartisan fact checker make the critical distinction between context that is properly omitted and context that should have been included?
We will transparently update this item if we receive any reply from PolitiFact Florida or its parent organizations.

Meanwhile, heads Murphy wins, tails Rubio loses. Coin flip.

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