Sunday, May 17, 2020

Malleable principles at PolitiFact Pennsylvania

We don't look at every PolitiFact fact check. Not by a long shot. But when we do, we often find problems.

We did not start reading PolitiFact Pennsylvania's fact check of Repblican Mike Turzai looking for problems. It came on our radar because we were updating our "Pants on Fire" bias research. We noticed the fact check had tags for "National" and for "Pennsylvania." State tags do not normally occur on stories with the "National" tag.

But we had to give this one a closer look. It rated Turzai "False" for claiming children are not at risk from COVID-19 unless they have underlying medical issues. It seemed worth looking at since children seem substantially less affected than adults by the novel coronavirus.

It didn't take us long to notice that a study PolitiFact used to justify its rating was published on May 11, 2020:
Turzai was on the right track when he said that children in poor health who contract the coronavirus are at risk of becoming seriously ill. And it’s true that children are far less susceptible than adults. But his claim that other children are totally safe is incorrect, according to a study published recently in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics.
And the rest of the justification came from an announcement made on May 11, 2020:
Publication of the study came the same day New York City officials announced that a growing cluster of children sickened with the coronavirus have developed a serious condition called pediatric multi-symptom inflammatory syndrome.
So, what's the problem?

PolitiFact's statement of principles stipulates it will judge claims based on information available when the claim was made. Turzai made his claim in a video released on May 9, 2020. Both sources of PolitiFact's rebuttal information came from May 11, 2020. The "False" ruling goes directly against PolitiFact's statement of principles (bold emphasis added):
The burden of proof is on the speaker, and we rate statements based on the information known at the time the statement is made.
The fact check's summary paragraph emphasizes that the ruling's justification came from the two sources identified above, both coming to light on May 11, 2020.
Our ruling

Speaking about the coronavirus, Turzai said children are "not at risk unless they have an underlying medical issue." A new study and a growing number of gravely ill children in New York City prove otherwise. We rate this statement False.
Once again, PolitiFact acted out-of-step with its own principles. In this case a Republican received unfair harm as a result.

That's the tendency we see from left-leaning PolitiFact.

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Unlike PolitiFact, we were not sure upon reading Turzai's claim what risk to children he meant. Risk of death? Risk of contracting the disease and/or carrying and spreading it? Risk of suffering severe illness upon contracting COVID-19?

PolitiFact settled on the last of those, without discussion. We think understanding him to mean the risk of death has equal justification.

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