Thursday, September 8, 2016

More unprincipled principles from PolitiFact (Updated)

When PolitiFact released its politisplainer video on its fact-checking process, "The PolitiFact Process," we responded with an annotated version of that video. We made one of our key points by contradicting Editor Angie Drobnic Holan's claim that "These ratings are not arbitrary. Each one has a specific definition." We pointed out that PolitiFact's "Truth-O-Meter" definitions are ambiguous, making it impossible for Holan to support her denial that the ratings are arbitrary.

With hardly a week having passed, PolitiFact serves up an example proving our point.

PolitiFact's fact check titled "Hillary Clinton says none of her emails had classification headers," makes a number of its typical mistakes (such as ignoring PolitiFact's "Burden of Proof" principle), but we would draw attention to the conclusion of the piece (bold emphasis added):
Clinton’s carefully worded statement is partially accurate but leaves out important context. For that, we rate her claim Mostly True.
Is the problem obvious?

Let's review PolitiFact's definition of "Mostly True":
MOSTLY TRUE – The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.
To us, that does not seem like a perfect match for the "Mostly True" rating Clinton received.

What about the definition of "Half True," then?
HALF TRUE – The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.
This one is closer, but still not quite a perfect match. Sure, we've got  "partially accurate," "details," and "context" mentioned, but PolitiFact's specific definition mentions "important details or taking things out of context," not the mere absence of "important context."

This 'tweener language underscores a point my co-editor Jeff D. made on Twitter earlier this week:

Fact checks like this one help illustrate Jeff's point: There is no objective difference between "needs additional information" and "leaves out important details."

PolitiFact can take exactly the same story detail and write the conclusion with a "Mostly True" or "Half True" ending.

In this case, it looks like writer Lauren Carroll (bless her heart) may have recommended a "Half True" rating for Clinton before the story went before PolitiFact's exalted "star chamber" (bless its heart) for a final determination of its "Truth-O-Meter" rating. The group of editors may have wanted a softer rating for Clinton, doubtless in devotion to objectivity and non-partisanship, and so decided on the "Mostly True" rating. Then Carroll presumably did an incomplete revision of the concluding paragraph.

We could be wrong in our hypothesis, of course, but there's little doubt the conclusion Carroll attached jibes better with a "Half True" rating than the "Mostly True" rating Clinton gets on her PolitiFact report card (bless its heart).

In the end, we get a timely example supporting our point that Angie Drobnic Holan spoke falsely when she claimed PolitiFact's ratings are not arbitrary.


While it should not surprise us at all if the wrong rating description stays in the story (like it did for PolitiFact fact check of Mitt Romney), it's possible PolitiFact will "fix" this problem by changing the description of the rating to match the definition of "Mostly True."

That change would not truly fix the problem nor blunt our point.


Because unless the facts of the story change no justification exists for changing the rating or its description. Changing the wording of the rating description does not alter the facts of the story.

Correction Sept. 8, 2016 6:30 p.m. EDT:
In the first paragraph of the "Afters" section, changed "Half True" to "Mostly True" to match the intent of the sentence.

Update Sept. 8, 2016 (6:30 p.m. EDT):

Jeff hinted to PolitiFact's Katie Sanders, the editor of the story, that something was amiss:

So far as I can tell, we received no clarification why Clinton's claim received a "Mostly True" rating with the "Half True" definition. We see no other difference in the story, and PolitiFact mentions no other changes in its editor's note.

How did the definition of "Half True" get into a fact check making the finding of "Mostly True"? That's the kind of transparency you don't normally get from PolitiFact.

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