Thursday, November 8, 2018

PolitiFact: "PolitiFact is not biased--here's why" Pt. 3

In an article titled "PolitiFact is not biased--here's why" PolitiFact Editor Angie Drobnic Holan offers four points as evidence PolitiFact is not biased. This series deals with each of the four.

3. We make mistakes sometimes, but we correct our errors promptly.
The facts comes first with us. That’s why it’s important for us -- or any reputable news organization -- to correct mistakes promptly and clearly. We follow a published corrections policy than anyone can read. Readers also can easily access a list of fact-checks that have been corrected or updated after the original publication.
I make mistakes sometimes, but I correct my errors promptly. Would that make me unbiased? Who believes that?

A willingness to correct errors does not bear directly on the issue of bias. Consider PolitiFact's move of paying researchers to look for examples of biased language in its work (the study found no systematic evidence of biased language). Would a policy of correcting mistakes promptly cancel out a strong propensity to use biased language?

Of course not. Correcting mistakes would only have an effect on biased language if the publisher viewed biased language as a mistake and corrected it as such.

In our experience PolitiFact often refuses to consider itself mistaken when it makes a real mistake.

What good is a thorough and detailed corrections policy if the publishing entity can't recognize the true need for a correction?

And doesn't it go without saying that the failure to recognize the need for a correction may serve as a strong indicator of bias?


Wonderful-Sounding Claim Meaning Nearly Nothing

How great is PolitiFact's corrections policy? Just let Holan tell you:
We believe it is one of the most robust and detailed corrections policies in American fact-checking.
We were momentarily tempted to fact check Holan's claim. Except she starts with "We believe" which immediately moves the claim into the realm of opinion. But if it were a claim of fact Holan could probably easily defend it because the claim doesn't really mean anything.

Think about it. "One of the the most robust and detailed corrections policies in American fact-checking." Let's take a look at the set of American fact checkers, using the list of IFCN-verified fact-checkers. When we looked on Nov. 8, 2018 there were eight (including PolitiFact).

With a pool that small PolitiFact could have the least robust and detailed corrections policy among the eight and plausibly say it has one of the most robust and detailed corrections policies in American fact-checking. Our opinion? In a pool of eight there's nothing to crow about unless you're No.1. Coming in No. 4 puts one in the middle of the pack, after all.

We think PolitiFact's corrections policy is less robust than that of its parent organization, the Poynter Institute. We're wondering why that should be the case.


Summary

The first two reasons Holan offered to support PolitiFact's "not biased" claim were incredibly weak. But the third item managed to register even lighter weight on the scale of evidence. A robust corrections policy is a poor protection against ideological bias. It's a bit like using a surgical mask for protection against mustard gas.

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