Saturday, August 11, 2018

Did an Independent Study Find PolitiFact Is Not Biased?

An email alert from August 10, 2018 led us to a blaring headline from the International Fact-Checking Network:

Is PolitiFact biased? This content analysis says no

Though "content analysis" could mean the researchers looked at pretty much anything having to do with PolitiFact's content, we suspected the article was talking about an inventory of PolitiFact's word choices, looking for words associated with a political point of view. For example, "anti-abortion" and "pro-life" signal political points of view. Using those and similar terms may tip off readers regarding the politics those who produce the news.

PolitiFact Bias has never used the presence of such terms to support our argument that PolitiFact is biased. In fact, I (Bryan) tweeted out a brief judgment of the study on Twitter back on July 16, 2018:
We have two major problems with the the IFCN article at Poynter.org (by Daniel Funke).

First, it implies that the word-use inventory somehow negates the evidence of bias that PolitiFact's critics use that do not include the types of word choices the study was was designed to detect:
It’s a critique that PolitiFact has long been accustomed to hearing.

“PolitiFact is engaging in a great deal of selection bias,” The Weekly Standard wrote in 2011. “'Fact Checkers' Overwhelmingly Target Right-Wing Pols and Pundits” reads an April 2017 headline from NewsBusters, a site whose goal is to expose and combat “liberal media bias.” There’s even an entire blog dedicated to showing the ways in which PolitiFact is biased.

The fact-checking project, which Poynter owns, has rebuffed those accusations, pointing to its transparent methodology and funding (as well as its membership in the International Fact-Checking Network) as proof that it doesn’t have a political persuasion. And now, PolitiFact has an academic study to back it up.
The second paragraph mentions selection bias (taking the Weekly Standard quotation out of context) and other types of bias noted by PolitiFact Bias ("an entire blog dedicated to showing the ways in which PolitiFact is biased"--close enough, we suppose, thanks for linking us).

The third paragraph says PolitiFact has "rebuffed those accusations." We think "ignores those accusations" describes the situation more accurately.

The third paragraph goes on to mention PolitiFact's "transparent methodology" (true if you ignore the ambiguity and inconsistency) and transparent funding (yes, funded by some left-wing sources but PolitiFact Bias does not use that as an evidence of PolitiFact's bias). before claiming that PolitiFact "has an academic study to back it up."

"It"=PolitiFact's rebuffing of accusations it is biased????

That does not follow logically. To support PolitiFact's denials of the bias of which it is accused, the study would have to offer evidence countering the specific accusations. It doesn't do that.

Second, Funke's article suggests that the study shows a lack of bias. We see that idea in the title of Funke's piece as well as in the material from the third paragraph.

But that's not how science works. Even for the paper's specific area of study, it does not show that PolitiFact has no bias. At best it could show the word choices it tested offer no significant indication of bias.

The difference is not small, and Funke's article even includes a quotation from one of the study's authors emphasizing the point:
But in a follow-up email to Poynter, Noah Smith, one of the report’s co-authors, added a caveat to the findings.

“This could be because there's really nothing to find, or because our tools aren't powerful enough to find what's there,” he said.
So the co-author says maybe the study's tools were not powerful enough to find the bias that exists. Yet Funke sticks with the title "Is PolitiFact biased? This content analysis says no."

Is it too much to ask for the title to agree with a co-author's description of the meaning of the study?

The content analysis did not say "no." It said (we summarize) "not in terms of these biased language indicators."

Funke's article paints a very misleading picture of the content and meaning of the study. The study refutes none of the major critiques of PolitiFact of which we are aware.


Afters

PolitiFact's methodology, funding and verified IFCN signatory status is supposed to assure us it has no political point of view?

We'd be more impressed if PolitiFact staffers revealed their votes in presidential elections and more than a tiny percentage voted Republican more than once in the past 25 years.

It's anybody's guess why fact checkers do not reveal their voting records, right?


Correction Aug. 11, 2018: Altered headline to read "an Independent Study" instead of "a Peer-Reviewed Study"

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