Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The "pick what we fact check" update

As Jeff D. noted in a post last week, PolitiFact has started a fundraising campaign at Kickstarter to pay for live fact-checking of the State of the Union address and response.

Jeff focused one of the perks for giving $100 or more: PolitiFact says it will give people who give at or above that level the privilege of picking what they fact check. Jeff pointed out that the offer places PolitiFact effectively on the horns of dilemma. Either PolitiFact is unethically selling control of its editorial decisions or else PolitiFact is making a sham offer to entice donors to give $100 or more.

We wanted to find out which it was, so Jeff came up with a scathingly brilliant idea: Join the campaign to gain the privilege of asking the questions we want answered, and see how PolitiFact will go about living up to its promises on a couple of the other lower-level perks given to supporters.

I probably wouldn't give two cents for PolitiFact's fact checking, but Jeff provided the funding and so far we're getting a decent return on the investment:

Bryan W. White about 9 hours ago

What hidden details of the "pick what we fact check" reward make it ethical, please?

Creator PolitiFact about 8 hours ago

Nothing hidden about the "pick what we fact check" reward, Bryan.

At PolitiFact, we have a constantly updating list of potential fact-checks. We call it the "buffet." And as you can imagine, there is more to fact-check than we can get to. We make our decisions based on news judgment, etc.

People who make a contribution of $100 or more will receive a list of four fact-checks from that buffet (likely two from conservatives, two from liberals). They'll get to pick what claim we check. Their choice won't stop us from checking other claims from the list, but it will assure that the claim they're interested in gets fact-checked.

It will also give them a sense of our process.

Let's unpack that response.

"Nothing hidden about the 'pick what we fact check' reward"

What? Of course there was hidden information about the reward. The description was ambiguous. Perhaps, as Jeff suggested, PolitiFact would offer the same four potential fact checks to all those supporting the project at the $100 or higher level. Or not. PolitiFact hid the precise nature of the reward with an imprecise description.

"People who make a contribution of $100 or more will receive a list of four fact-checks from that buffet (likely two from conservatives, two from liberals)."

Does each contributor of $100 or more choose from a unique list of four fact checks? We still don't know for sure from PolitiFact's description. So that information remains hidden. Probably after one of a set of four is chosen the remainder return to PolitiFact's "buffet" of potential fact checks. But that procedure potentially leads to the type of sham reward scenario Jeff touched on in our earlier post.

Suppose PolitiFact has a buffet consisting of 100 potential fact checks. And suppose PolitiFact has 97 contributors who paid $100 or more for the privilege of choosing what PolitiFact fact checks.

PolitiFact can potentially give each of those 97 a selection of four fact checks from that group of 100, and each of them (perhaps not simultaneously) can choose one of those four, leaving PolitiFact to publish 97 out of 100 fact checks it considered doing.

That's a sham offer of editorial control. PolitiFact is selling an illusion of editorial control in a scenario like that. PolitiFact can even pick the other three later on if it chooses, ending up choosing every single one of the 100 fact checks it was considering.

Simply put, PolitiFact could give subscribers a list of items they were going to check anyway, and no one would be the wiser.

Step right up, rubes!

"Their choice won't stop us from checking other claims from the list, but it will assure that the claim they're interested in gets fact-checked."

PolitiFact, of course, is left free to manipulate the offer behind the scenes to make it completely insignificant. Kind of like that carnival game where you pick up a plastic duck out of the water. The carny looks at a number on the bottom of the duck and gives the contestant the prize that corresponds to the number. But since the public can't see how the prizes are numbered, the carny can give the contestant any prize the carny chooses. PolitiFact practices the same type of transparency as the carnival swindler.

"It will also give them a sense of our process."

One wonders how that is supposed to work.

Jeff Adds:

This response from PolitiFact validates the suspicions I outlined in my previous post. PolitiFact implicitly responds to my article by stating they will not spike items unselected by donors. In doing so, they confirm the "pick a fact check" reward is pure theater, and a sham benefit.

It's also worth noting that while this $100 reward drew our attention, there is another one that is equally vague: The $25 pledge reward includes (emphasis added) "A follow and a Twitter shout out to our 180,000 followers (or a mention on Facebook)."

Unfortunately, PolitiFact doesn't specify how they determine which one you receive. For our money, however, we look forward to them informing their 180,000 Twitter followers about our existence and sincerely hope our tweets help motivate PolitiFact to become better fact checkers.

You can beat the rush and follow us on Twitter by clicking here.

Bryan adds:

There's an easy way for PolitiFact to keep this whole thing aboveboard. All it takes is a couple of quotation marks:

You "pick" what we fact check!

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