Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Does changing from "True" to "Half True" count as a correction? Clarification? Update? Anything?

The use and abuse of the PolitiMulligan

We've pointed out before PolitiFact's propensity to correct or update its stories on the sly, contrary to statements of journalistic ethics (including its own statement of principles) regarding transparency.

Thanks to PolitiFact, we have another example in the genre, where PolitiFact California, instead of announcing a correction or update, simply executed a do-over on one of its stories.

On July 28, 2016, PolitiFact ruled it "True" that vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence had advocated diverting federal money from AIDS care services to "conversion therapy." But Timothy P. Carney, writing for the right-leaning Washington Examiner, had published an item the day before explaining why the evidence used by Pence's critics did not wash.

I wrote about PolitiFact California's faulty fact check on July 29, 2016 at Zebra Fact Check.

On Dec. 2, 2016, PolitiFact partly reversed itself, publishing a new version of the fact check with a "Half True" rating replacing the original "True" rating.

To be sure, the new item features a lengthy editor's note explaining the reason for the new version of PolitiFact California's fact check. But readers should note that PolitiFact completely avoids any admission of error in its explanation:
EDITOR’S NOTE: On July 28, 2016, PolitiFact California rated as True a statement by Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom that Republican Indiana Governor and now Vice President-Elect Mike Pence "advocated diverting taxpayer dollars to so-called conversion therapy." We based that ruling on a statement Pence made in 2000 on his congressional campaign website, in which Pence says "Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior." Subsequently, our readers and other fact-checking websites examined the claim and made some points that led us to reconsider the fact check. Readers pointed out that Pence never explicitly advocated for conversion therapy in his statement and that he may have been pushing for safer sex practices. Pence’s words are open to other interpretations: Gay and lesbian leaders, for example, say his statement continues to give the impression that he supported the controversial practice of conversion therapy when his words are viewed in context with his long opposition to LGBT rights. Taking all of this into account, we are changing our rating to Half True and providing this new analysis.

PolitiFact California’s practice is to consider new evidence and perspectives related to our fact checks, and to revise our ratings when warranted.
While we credit PolitiFact California for keeping an archived version of its first attempt available for readers, we find PolitiFact's approach a bit puzzling.

First of all, there are no "new evidence and perspectives" involved in this case. Carney's July 27 article ought to have pre-empted the flaw in PolitiFact California's original July 28 fact check, and Zebra Fact Check highlighted the problem again two days later: A fact checker needs to account for the difference in wording between "changing sexual behavior" and "changing sexual preference." Also noted was PolitiFact California's failure to explain the immediate context of the smoking gun quotation it used to convict Pence: The Ryan White Care Act.

PolitiFact California made two major mistakes in its fact-checking. First, it failed to offer due attention to the wording of Pence's statement. Second, it failed to consider the context.

The two major errors resulted in no admission of error. And PolitiFact California's do-over fails to even show up on PolitiFact's list of stories that were updated or corrected.

As for the new "Half True" rating? If "changing their sexual behavior" in the context of the Ryan White Care Act is open to interpretation as "changing their sexual orientation," then we claim as our privilege the interpretation of "Half True" as "False."

In other words, PolitiFact California, creative interpretation is no substitute for facts.


So apparently it is an update. Just not the type of update that PolitiFact includes on its "Corrections and Updates" page.


  1. I think the worst part is their summary as you show: under the meter is the shorthand rationale for the rating, "interpretations ...vary". If this were applied to all their "fact checks" nothing could be true or false.

    1. Agreed, and the shorthand rationale reflected the long-form rationale.

      PolitiFact seems unable to fit incompetence into its self image. Even on a limited basis.


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