Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Volokh Conspiracy: "Fact-checking PolitiFact’s fact-check of Trump’s ‘crime is rising’ claim"

Eugene Volokh of the Washington Post blog "the Volokh Conspiracy" yesterday eruditely skewered PolitiFact's June 2016 "Pants on Fire" rating of Donald Trump's "crime is rising" claim.

We highlighted Power Line blog's criticism of that rating. But Volokh is not merely rehashing the past criticism. PolitiFact responded to the past criticism with an update to its story. The rationalization read, in part:
(W)hile the preliminary data shows spikes in crime rates in some cities, Trump’s statement was broad, without qualifiers, and it came amid comments that painted an overarching image of a nation in decline. Trump didn’t say that crime was rising "recently" or "in recent months" or "over the past year" or "in some places."

Ultimately, we find that Trump’s sweeping rhetoric about a nation in decline and beset by crime ignores the overall trend of violent and property crime rates over the past 25 years, which is that they have fallen, consistently and significantly. We stand by our rating of Pants on Fire.
I don’t find this a persuasive defense. If the original PolitiFact post had said something like, “The violent crime rate has plummeted in the past 25 years, and while it may have been increasing in the last year and a quarter, that could easily be an anomaly, and our data on that are just preliminary and may not be sound,” I would have thought it a sensible criticism of Trump’s assertion.
Indeed! While it criticizes Trump for his "sweeping" statement, PolitiFact makes a similarly "sweeping" statement with its "Pants on Fire" rating. "Pants on Fire" is below "False" which is in turn below "Mostly False." Note how PolitiFact defines "Mostly False": "MOSTLY FALSE – The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression."

PolitiFact appears to admit Trump's statement contains an element of truth but avoids the implications by insisting on its own interpretation of Trump's statement. As we've written repeatedly, fact-checkers should bind themselves to the principle of charitable interpretation. PolitiFact does not apply this principle consistently.

Volokh continues:
This is not, I think, how fact-checkers should operate (and I say this as someone who is not a Trump supporter). And though today’s update at least mentions the “preliminary figures for 2015 that show crime rising,” it doesn’t acknowledge what strikes me as the quite misleading analysis in the original post.
We recommend reading through all of Volokh's commentary.

Note: Updated shortly after publication with tags and a hotlink to the PolitiFact fact check.

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