Wednesday, January 3, 2018

'(PolitiFact's) rulings are based on when a statement was made and on the information available at that time'

PolitiFact Texas issued a "False" rating to Gov. Greg Abbott on Nov. 16, 2017, finding it "False" that Texas had experience its lowest unemployment rate in 40 years.

PolitiFact Texas was also rating Abbott's claim that Texas led the nation last month (September?) in job creation. But we will focus on the first part of the claim, for that rating centers on PolitiFact's principle that it bases its rulings on the timing of a statement:
Timing – Our rulings are based on when a statement was made and on the information available at that time.
Our interest in this item was piqued when we found it linked at PolitiFact's "Corrections and updates" page. We went looking for the correction and found this:
UPDATE, Nov. 17, 2017: Two days after Abbott tweeted his claim about the Texas jobless rate, the federal government reported that the state had a 41-year record low 3.9 percent jobless rate in October 2017.
The release of government statistics confirmed the accuracy of Abbott's claim if he was talking about October.

PolitiFact Texas' update reminded us of a PolitiFact rating from March 18, 2011. Actor Anne Hathaway said the majority of Americans support gay marriage. PolitiFact rated her claim "Mostly True" based on polling released after Hathaway made her claim. Note how PolitiFact foreshadowed its unprincipled decision (bold emphasis added):
(P)ublic opinion on gay marriage is shifting quickly. How quickly? Let's just say we're glad we waited a day to publish our item.
I covered PolitiFact's failure to follow its principles back when the incident happened. But in this case PolitiFact was consistent with its principles.

Or was it?

What information was available at the time?

When Hathaway made her claim, no poll unequivocally supported her claim, and we had no reason to think the actor was in any position to have insider pre-publication information about new polling. But upon reading PolitiFact Texas' fact check of Abbott, we were left wondering whether Abbott might know the government numbers before they were released to the public.

PolitiFact Texas did not address that issue, noting simply that the unemployment rates for October were not yet released. We infer that PolitiFact Texas presumed the BLS statistics were not available to government leaders in Texas. As for us, we had no idea whether the BLS made statistics available to state governments but thought it was worth exploring.

Our search quickly led us to a Nov. 17, 2017 article at the Austin American-Statesman. That's the same Austin American-Statesman that has long partnered with PolitiFact to publish content for PolitiFact Texas.

The article, by Dan Zehr, answered our question:
It’s common and appropriate for state workforce commissions to share “pre-release” data with governors’ offices and other officials, said Cheryl Abbot, regional economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics Southwest regional office. However, she said, the bureau considers the data confidential until their official release.
Zehr's article focused on a dilemma: Was Abbott talking about the October numbers (making him guilty of breaching confidentiality), or was he just wrong based on the number from September 2017? Zehr reported the governor's office denied that Abbott was privy to the October numbers before their official release.

We think Zehr did work that PolitiFact Texas should have either duplicated or referenced. PolitiFact Texas apparently failed to rule out the possibility that Abbott referred to the official October numbers based on the routine early sharing of such information with state government officials.

For the sake of argument, let's assume Abbott's office told Zehr the truth

PolitiFact Texas' fact check based its rating on the assumption Abbott referred to unemployment numbers for September 2017. That agrees with Zehr's reporting on what the governor's office said it was talking about.

If Abbott was talking about the September 2017 numbers, was his statement false, as PolitiFact Texas declared?

Let's review what Abbott said.

PolitiFact (bold emphasis added):
It’s commonplace for a governor to tout a state’s economy. Still, Greg Abbott of Texas made us wonder when he tweeted in mid-November 2017: "The Texas unemployment rate is now the lowest it’s been in 40 years & Texas led the nation last month in new job creation."
And let's review what PolitiFact found from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
(W)e fetched Bureau of Labor Statistics figures showing that the state’s impressive 4 percent jobless rate for September 2017 tied the previous record low since 1976. According to the bureau, the state similarly had a 4 percent unemployment rate in November and December 2000, 17 years ago. The state jobless rate in fall 1977, 40 years ago, hovered at 5.2 percent.
According to PolitiFact's research, what is the lowest unemployment rate in Texas over the past 40 years? The answer is 4 percent. That percentage occurred three times over the 40 year span, including September 2017. But by PolitiFact Texas' reasoning (and Zehr's reasoning, too), it is false for Abbott to claim September 2017 as the lowest in the past 40 years.

We say PolitiFact Texas (and Zehr) were wrong to suggest Abbott was simply wrong about the unemployment rate in Texas.

Ambiguous isn't the same as wrong

Certainly Gov. Abbott might have expressed himself more clearly. Abbott had the option of saying "The Texas unemployment rate is lower now than it has been in 40 years" if he believed that was the case. Such phrasing would tell his audience that no matter what the unemployment rate over the past 40 years, the current rate is lower.

Alternatively, Abbott might have said "The Texas unemployment rate is as low now as it has been in 40 years." That phrasing would clue his audience that the present low unemployment rate was achieved during the past 40 years at least twice.

Abbott's phrasing was somewhere in between the two alternatives we created. What he said hinted that the September 2017 rate was lower than it has been in 40 years but did not say so outright. His words were compatible with the September 2017 rate equaling the lowest in the past 40 years, but fell short of telling the entire story.

Kind of like PolitiFact Texas fell short of telling the entire story.

Though we took note of it on Twitter, we will again take the opportunity to recognize PolitiFact Texas and W. Gardner Selby as PolitiFact's best exemplars of transparency with respect to expert interviews. PolitiFact Texas posted the relevant portions (so far as we can tell!) of its interview of Cheryl Abbot. PolitiFact Texas has done similarly in the past, and we have encouraged PolitiFact (and other fact checkers) to make it standard practice.

Selby's interview shows him asking Cheryl Abbot to confirm his reading of the unemployment statistics. Selby's question was mildly leading, keeping Abbott to the topic of whether the low September 2017 unemployment rate had been equaled twice in the past 40 years. A different approach might have clued Selby to the same valuable information Dan Zehr reported: Gov. Abbott may have had access to the confidential October figures and his statement may prove correct for that month once the BLS releases the numbers.

It's notable that in the interview Abbot said that the numbers from September 2017 were the "lowest" in 40 years (bold emphasis added):
(T)he seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for Texas in September 2017 matched those of November and December 2000, all being the lowest rates recorded in the State since 1976.
Selby did not use the above quotation from Abbot. Perhaps he did not want his audience confused by the fact Abbot used the same term Abbott used.

In our view, Gov. Abbott was at least partially correct if he was talking about September 2017 and correct if he was talking about October 2017.

PolitiFact Texas should have covered both options more thoroughly.

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