Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A tale of two fact checks

(crossposted from Sublime Bloviations)

PolitiFact recently checked a claim by Rep. H. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) that EPA regulations on mining wastewater are so strict that even some popular bottled waters would not pass.

The fact check is notable because it is one for which the claim is technically accurate but leaves a misleading impression.  Those types of claims seem like they should typically result in a "Mostly True" or "Half True" true rating, since PolitiFact's descriptions of those ratings suggest as much (yellow highlights added):
TrueThe statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.
Mostly TrueThe statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.
Half TrueThe statement is accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.
Barely True – The statement contains some element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.
False – The statement is not accurate.
Pants on Fire – The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.
Compare a claim from President Barack Obama back in 2009:
"The problem is that, for decades, we have avoided doing what must be done as a nation to turn challenge into opportunity," Obama said. "As a consequence, we import more oil today than we did on 9/11. The 1908 Model T earned better gas mileage than a typical SUV sold in 2008. And even as our economy has been transformed by new forms of technology, our electric grid looks largely the same as it did half a century ago."
As with Griffith, the fact check found that Obama created an impression that was the reverse of the truth, though it was deferentially described as "a reach" rather than flatly false:
But his implication is that we haven't gotten more fuel efficient in 100 years. And that's a reach.
It's more than a reach. It's simply untrue, as was highlighted in a NPR broadcast I referenced in my review of the Obama fact check.

The stories are parallel except for the fact that Griffith ends with a "Barely True" rating and the president ends with a "Mostly True" rating from the "Truth-O-Meter."  That's if we overlook the fact that Obama's statement may well have been technically false contrary to PolitiFact's finding.

The story comparison suggests that those who work for PolitiFact subjectively interpret PolitiFact's grading structure.

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