Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Zebra Fact Check: The Importance of Interpretation

Bryan has written an article over at his fact checking site, Zebra Fact Check, that I think is worth highlighting here. Bryan discusses the importance and benefits of correctly interpreting a person's claims, and uses a recent PunditFact article as an example of botching this critical exercise:
PunditFact fails to apply one of the basic rules of interpretation, which is to interpret less clear passages by what more clear passages say. 
Bryan profiles PunditFact's article on Tom DeLay, who was discussing the indictment of Texas governor Rick Perry. In addition to pointing out PundiFact's shoddy journalism, Bryan spots several ways their apparent bias affected the fact check:
We think PunditFact’s faulty interpretation did much to color the results of the fact check. Though PolitiFact’s headline announced a check of DeLay’s claim of ties between McCrum and Democrats, it’s hard to reconcile PolitiFact’s confirmation of such ties with the “Mostly False” rating it gave DeLay. PunditFact affirms “weak ties” to Democrats. Weak ties are ties.
Even more damning evidence of PundiFact's liberal bent comes from their selective use of a CNN chyron placed next to its ubiquitous Truth-O-Meter graphic, allowing PolitiFact to reinforce the editorial slant of its fact check.

While I'm admittedly biased, Bryan's piece is well done and I recommend you read the whole thing.

Bryan didn't mention the main thing I noticed when I first read PunditFact's DeLay article, namely, the superfluous inclusion of a personal smear. PunditFact writer Linda Qiu offered up this paragraph in summation:
This record of bipartisanship is not unusual nor undesired in special prosecutors, said Wisenberg, who considers himself a conservative and opposes the prosecution against DeLay. He pointed out that special prosecutor Ken Starr, famous for investigating President Bill Clinton, also had ties to both parties, and DeLay did not oppose him.
We're not sure what probative value these two sentences have beyond suggesting DeLay is a hypocrite. Highlighting hypocrisy is a very persuasive argument, but it's also a fallacious one. Tom DeLay's support or opposition to Ken Starr bears no relevance to the factual accuracy of the current claim PunditFact is supposedly checking. It serves only to tarnish DeLay's character with readers. That's not fact checking, and that's not even editorializing. It's immature trolling.

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