Friday, June 22, 2018

PolitiFact Corrects, We Evaluate the Correction

PolitiFact corrected an error in one of its fact checks this past week, most likely in response to an email we sent on June 20, 2018.
Dear PolitiFact,

A recent PolitiFact fact check contains the following paragraph (bold emphasis added):
Soon after, in February 2017, Nehlen wrote on Twitter that Islam was not a religion of peace and posted a photo of a plane striking the World Trade Center with the caption, "9/11 would’ve been a Wonderful #DayWithoutImmigrants." In the following months, Nehlen also tweeted that "Islam is not your friend," implied that Muslim communities should be bombed and retweeted posts saying Bill and Hillary Clinton were murdering associates.

The hotlink ("implied") leads to an archived Twitter page. Unless I'm missing somelthing [sic], the following represents the best candidate as a supporting evidence:


Unless "Muslim no-go zones" represent typical Muslim communities, PolitiFact's summary of Nehlen's tweet distorts the truth. If a politician similarly omitted context in this fashion, would PolitiFact not mete out a "Half True" rating or worse?

If PolitiFact excuses itself from telling the truth where people accused of bigotry are involved, that principle ought to appear in its statement of principles.

Otherwise, a correction or clarification is in order. Thanks.
We were surprised to see that PolitiFact updated the story with a clarification within two days. And PolitiFact did most things right with the fix, which it labeled a "clarification."

Here's a checklist:
  1. Paid attention to the criticism
  2. Updated the article with a clarification
  3. Attached a clarification notice at the bottom of the fact check
  4. Added the "Corrections and Updates" tag to the article, ensuring it would appear on PolitiFact's "Corrections and Updates" page
Still, we think PolitiFact can do better.

Specifically, we fault PolitiFact for its lack of transparency regarding the specifics of the mistake.

Note what Craig Silverman, long associated with PolitiFact's owner, the Poynter Institute, said in an American Press Institute interview about letting readers know what changed:

News organizations aren’t the only ones on the internet who are practicing some form of journalism. There are a number of sites or blogs or individual bloggers who may not have the same standards for corrections. Is there any way journalists or anyone else can contribute to a culture of corrections? Where does it start?

SILVERMAN: Bloggers actually ended up doing a little bit of correction innovation. In the relatively early blogging days, you’d often see <strike>strikethrough</strike> used to cross out a typo or error. This was a lovely use of the medium, as it showed what was incorrect and also included the correct information after. In that respect, bloggers modelled good behavior, and showed how digital corrections can work. We can learn from that.

It all starts with a broad commitment to acknowledge and even publicize mistakes. That is the core of the culture, the ethic of correction.
We think Silverman has it right. Transparency in corrections involves letting the reader know what the story got wrong. In this case, PolitiFact reported that a tweet implied that somebody wanted to bomb Muslim communities. The tweet referred, in fact, to a small subset of Muslim communities (so small PolitiFact says they do not exist hey that one failed its fact check and I forgot to remove it from the first published draft) referred to as "no-go zones"--areas where non-Muslims allegedly face unusual danger to their person and property.

PolitiFact explained its error like this:
This fact-check has been updated to more precisely refer to a previous Nehlen tweet
That notice is transparent about the fact the text of the fact check was changed and transparent about the part of the fact check that was changed (information about a Nehlen tweet). But it mostly lacked transparency about what the fact check got wrong and the misleading impression it created.

We think journalists, including PolitiFact, stand to gain public trust by full transparency regarding errors. Though that boost to public trust assumes that errors aren't so ridiculous and rampant that transparency instead destroys the organization's credibility.

Is that what PolitiFact fears when it issues these vague descriptions of its inaccuracies?

Still, we're encouraged that PolitiFact performed a clarification and mostly followed its corrections policy. Ignoring needed corrections is worse than falling short of best practices with the corrections.

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