Monday, November 21, 2011

Hope 'n' change at PolitiFact

Crossposted from Sublime Bloviations

 I keep hoping that criticism will influence positive change at PolitiFact, the fact checking arm of the St. Petersburg Times (soon changing its name to the Tampa Bay Times).

Well, a positive change occurred at PolitiFact recently.

Unfortunately, it was of the "one step forward, two steps back" variety.

For some time I've carped about PolitiFact's inconsistent standards, and in particular its publishing of two different standards for its "Half True" position on the "Truth-O-Meter."

The recent change probably stemmed from a message I sent to an editor at the paper's city desk (sent Nov. 9):
PolitiFact has created a problem for itself through inconsistency.  During the site's earlier years a page called "About PolitiFact" gave information about how the "Flip-O-Meter" and the "Truth-O-Meter" supposedly operate.  The page includes a description of each of the "Truth-O-Meter" rating categories.

More recently, editor Bill Adair posted an item called "Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter."  The problem?  The definition for "Half True" is different than the one PolitiFact posted for well over a year prior.  Compounding the problem, PolitiFact has kept both versions online through now.

1)  The statement is accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.
2)  The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.

I'll be interested to see the eventual remedy.  Which items over PolitiFact's history went by which definition? Was a change made in Feb. 2011 or before without any announcement?  How can PolitiFact legitimately offer report cards and "Truth Index" ratings if the grading system isn't consistent?  Those are questions I'd imagine readers would have if they realized PolitiFact is using two different definitions for the same rating.  I don't expect you to answer them for my sake (not that I would mind if you did). 

Good luck to all sorting this one out.
The eventual remedy is apparently to simply change the longstanding definition at "About PolitiFact" to match the newer one at "Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter" without any fanfare--indeed, without any apparent notice whatsoever.  I detect no admission of error at all and no acknowledgment that PolitiFact changed its standard.

The move seems consistent with the desire of the mainstream press to avoid doing things that "undermine the ability of readers, viewers or listeners to believe what they print or broadcast."

Sadly, I'm not at all surprised.

On the positive side, the definitions are now consistent with one another.

On the negative side, PolitiFact either created a past illusion where Truth-O-Meter ratings used the old system or else created a fresh illusion that past ratings follow the new system.  And went about it in about the least transparent way possible.


Good luck to PolitiFact retroactively changing the dozens (perhaps hundreds) of places on the Web that republished the original definition of "Half True."

(Clipped from; click image for enlarged view)

Contact PolitiFact Wisconsin.  They didn't get the memo yet.  And PolitiFact Texas has the same problem.

It's not the crime, it's the coverup.

Update 2:

It's also worth remembering PolitiFact's agonizing decision to change "Barely True" to "Mostly False."

"It is a change we don't make lightly," wrote Bill Adair.

How do you like that?  A change in the wording of a rating gets a reader survey prior to the change and an article announcing the change.  A change in the definition of a rating--a much more substantial change--gets the swept-under-the-rug treatment.

11/22/11-Added PFB link in update 2-Jeff

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