Saturday, December 24, 2011

Forbes: "PolitiFact and the Traditional Journalism Trap"

After a focused effort to publish my own response to Bill Adair's thin defense of PolitiFact's choice for its "Lie of the Year," I ran across a similar item in Forbes by John McQuaid.

McQuaid and I found two key areas of agreement.

First, the response story from PolitiFact editor Bill Adair was born of conceit:
The whole PolitiFact ruckus has the feel of traditional newspaper journalism (despite the new-ish fact-checking approach) whipsawed by forces it cannot grasp. Traditional newspaper journalism wades boldly into the public square wielding its post-Watergate, “objective” approach and finds itself besieged. And so it concludes: from nasty anonymous comments to partisan sniping to political debates that are never resolved, the public square sucks.
Second, PolitiFact is unable or unwilling to adequately explain and defend its argument for "Lie of the Year":
Today, if you make a Big Statement, people will come after you. Yes, some (most?) will be hacks and fools. But some will be smart, and they will demolish you. Your Pulitzer Prize will not protect you. So you should be prepared to defend yourself and your statement. That means wading into the public square not only with facts, but with arguments and a grasp of the subtleties of the issue at hand. This is, on the whole, a good thing. Readers can affirm or object. Commentators can comment. And fact-checkers can defend and elaborate on their decisions.

That Politifact is apparently unable to understand the necessity of this, and may not even possess the vocabulary or self-awareness needed to do it, suggests it has big problems ahead.
McQuaid's article is worth a read.  It's short and occurs in two parts (1,2).

McQuaid does not touch on the issue of PolitiFact's bias problem.  But his comments touch one of the key sources of media bias.  Superficial knowledge of the subject tends to increase the role of ideological bias in reporting.  That's why citing expert sources may lead to problems where the experts disagree.  The journalist isn't likely to settle an issue debated by the experts on the topic.  Yet bias may lead the journalist to prefer one expert assessment over another.

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