Sunday, June 21, 2020

Does PolitiFact deliberately try to cite biased experts? (Updated)

If there's one thing PolitiFact excels at, it's finding biased experts to quote in its fact checks.

Sometimes there's an identifiable conservative, but PolitiFact favors majority rule when it surveys a handful of experts. It seems to us that PolitiFact lately is suppressing the appearance of dissent by not bothering to find a representative sample of experts.

How about a new example?

For this fact check on President Trump's criticism of President Obama, PolitiFact cited three experts, in support of its "Truth-O-Meter" ruling.

Two out of the three were appointed to Mr. Obama's "Task Force on 21st Century Policing." All three have FEC records showing they donate politically to Democrats:
The first two on the list, in fact, specifically donated to Mr. Obama's presidential campaign.  Thus making them perfect experts to comment on Mr. Trump's criticism of Mr. Obama?

Seriously, isn't this set of experts exactly the last sort of thing a nonpartisan fact-checking organization that declares itself "not biased" should do?

As bad as its selection of experts looks, the real problem with the fact check happens when PolitiFact arbitrarily decides that the thing Trump said President Obama did not try to do was "police reform" when Trump said "fix this." Plenty of things can fit under "police reform," and PolitiFact proves it by citing how "the Justice Department did overhaul its rules to address racial profiling."

Other evidence supposedly showing Trump wrong was the task force's (non-binding!) set of recommendations. The paucity of the evidence comes through in PolitiFact's summary:
The record shows that is not true. After the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and related racial justice protests, Obama established a task force to examine better policing practices. The Obama administration also investigated patterns or practices of misconduct in police departments and entered into court-binding agreements that require departments to correct misconduct.
So putting together a task force to make recommendations on police reform is trying to "fix this."

And, for what it's worth, the fact check offered no clear support for its claim "The Obama administration also investigated patterns or practices of misconduct in police departments." PolitiFact included a paragraph describing what the administration supposedly did, but that paragraph did not reference any of its experts and did not cite either by link or by name any source backing the claim.

Mr. Trump was not specific about what he meant by "fix this." Rather than granting fact-checkers license for free interpretation, that type of ambiguity in a statement makes it nearly impossible to fairly fact check the statement. Put simply, a fact checker has to have a pretty clear idea of what a claim means in order to fact check it adequately. Trump may have had in mind his administration's move to create a record of police behavior that would make it hard for officers with poor records to move to a different police department after committing questionable conduct. It's hard to say.

Here's Mr. Trump's statement with some context:
Donald Trump: (11:32)
Under this executive order departments will also need a share of information about credible abuses so that offers with significant issues do not simply move from one police department to the next, that's a problem. And the heads of our police department said, "Whatever you can do about that please let us know." We're letting you know, we're doing a lot about it. In addition, my order will direct federal funding to support officers in dealing with homeless individuals and those who have mental illness and substance abuse problems. We will provide more resources for co-responders, such as social workers who can help officers manage these complex encounters. And this is what they've studied and worked on all their lives, they understand how to do it. We're going to get the best of them put in our police departments and working with our police.

Donald Trump: (12:33)
We will have reform without undermining our many great and extremely talented law enforcement officers. President Obama and Vice President Biden never even tried to fix this during their eight-year period.
We can apparently credit the Obama administration with talking about doing some of the things Trump directed via executive order.

In PolitiFact's estimation, that seems to fully count as trying to actually do them.

And PolitiFact's opinion was backed by experts who give money to Democratic Party politicians, so how could it be wrong?

Update June 21, 2020:

The International Fact-Checking Network Code of Principles

In 2020 the International Fact-Checking Network beefed up its statement of principles, listing more stringent requirements in order to achieve "verified" status in adhering to its Code of Principles.

The requirements are so stringent that we can't help but think that it portends lower standards for applying the standards.

Take this, for example, from the form explaining to organizations how to demonstrate their compliance (bold emphasis added):
3. The applicant discloses in its fact checks relevant interests of the sources it quotes
where the reader might reasonably conclude those interests could influence the
accuracy of the evidence provided.
It also discloses in its fact checks any commercial
or other such relationships it has that a member of the public might reasonably
conclude could influence the findings of the fact-check.
Is there a way to read the requirement in bold that would relieve PolitiFact from the responsibility of disclosing that every one of the experts it chose for this fact check has an FEC record showing support for Democratic Party politics?

If there is, then we expect that IFCN verification will continue, as it has in the past, to serve as a deceitful fig leaf creating the appearance of adherence to standards fact checkers show little interest in following.

We doubt any number of code infractions could make the Poynter-owned IFCN suspend the verification status of Poynter-owned PolitiFact.

Note: Near the time of this update we also updated the list of story tags.

Edit 2050 PDT 6/21/20: Changed "a" "to" and "police" to "of" "for" and "officers" respectively for clarity in penultimate sentence of paragraph immediately preceding Trump 11:32 quote - Jeff

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