Articles about "Fact Checking"

Washington Post honors researcher who has ‘shared more Pulitzer Prizes than anyone in the newsroom’

Washington Post researcher Julie Tate is among the winners of this year’s Eugene Meyer Awards at the Washington Post, Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth tells staffers in an email. Tate “began her career at The Post occupying a seat in the very back of the newsroom — in “the library” — where the job was usually to locate newspaper clips and spell-check names for reporters writing stories,” Weymouth writes.

But Julie had her own ideas about research, and they went far beyond what most reporters knew to ask for. They included original reporting that made links between events and people, people and addresses, people and people, and eventually secret things the government was trying to hide. For those reporters who spotted her unique skills, she was a gold mine. They would scheme to get her to work with them because they knew she would find facts and relationships they hadn’t even thought of.

Tate, Weymouth writes, has “shared more Pulitzer Prizes than anyone in the newsroom; in 2005 alone her name was on four of the six won by The Washington Post that year,”

In 2008, Erik Wemple, then the editor of Washington City Paper (where I worked with him), wrote about Tate, calling her an “Unsung Hero” on pieces like Dana Priest and Anne Hull’s series on Walter Reed Hospital. Tate was previously a fact-checker at The New Yorker and gave a seminar there in fact-checking techniques after its senior editor Peter Canby heard her talk “about search programs she was using that I had never heard of,” he told Wemple. Read more

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The gloves come off as journalists increasingly fact-check other journalists. (Depositphotos)

‘Gloves come off’ as journalists debunk each other’s Obamacare horror stories

When Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik saw Deborah Cavallaro tell her story on television, something about it didn’t add up.

Cavallaro is a real-estate agent and investor in Westchester, Calif. She’s also become a minor media celebrity in the past few weeks, repeatedly sharing her story of how the Affordable Care Act will raise her medical costs. Since October 23, Cavallaro has been interviewed on the NBC Nightly News, CNBC, the public radio show “Marketplace,” two local Los Angeles TV newscasts, and in Hiltzik’s own newspaper.

As all the news reports have noted, Cavallaro’s insurer informed her that it’s canceling her policy and instead offering a new plan with a higher premium. “Her only option is to be forced into a policy she doesn’t want and can’t afford,” reported KCBS-TV. “For the first time in my whole life, I will be without insurance,” she lamented on KNBC-TV.

“There were just a lot of gaps in her story,” Hiltzik told me in a phone conversation this week. “It just seemed to me that all the people who were going on the air and telling her story were leaving critical things out.”

So Hiltzik – a Pulitzer Prize winner who regularly writes about health care — did something relatively uncommon for mainstream newspaper writers. He called Cavallaro, conducted his own interview, and used his blog to poke holes in the other news organizations’ stories.

Browsing on Covered California, the state’s new online insurance exchange, Hiltzik found little basis for Cavallaro’s fear – unchallenged in most of the news stories — that she’ll be forced to pay sharply higher premiums or be left without insurance at all. In fact, Hiltzik found that Cavallaro can choose among several health plans, including at least one with similar benefits and lower premiums than her current policy.

“[T]he reporters who interviewed her without getting all the facts produced inexcusably shoddy work,” Hiltzik wrote in an Oct. 30 blog post.

Media fact-checking the media

Hiltzik is one of several journalists and bloggers who’ve taken it upon themselves to debunk “horror stories” about Obamacare, including Erik Wemple in The Washington Post, Eric Stern in Salon, and Paul Waldman in The American Prospect (where Hiltzik first learned about Cavallaro). They and other writers identified gaps in media reports about disgruntled consumers who appeared on “CBS This Morning,” Fox News’s “Hannity,” and other outlets.

“The whole concept of the media checking the media is a new phenomenon,” said Duke University professor Bill Adair, a Poynter adjunct faculty member who created the Politifact website.

“People in the media are realizing that they need to hold everybody accountable, including their colleagues,” Adair said in a phone interview.

In the not-so-distant past, mainstream news organizations generally avoided direct criticism of their competitors’ journalism. While it wasn’t unusual for newspapers and broadcasters to follow up on other organizations’ reporting – and sometimes find errors in those earlier stories — such matters traditionally were handled relatively politely.

“Sometimes we would say, ‘Contrary to reports published elsewhere,’ ” recalled Hiltzik, a 40-year newspaper veteran.

But Hiltzik no longer sees the need for such restraint when calling out competing news organizations. As he sees it, the media now promote their stories more loudly, and some organizations tinge them with partisan politics.

“That’s an invitation for the gloves to come off,” he said. “If CNBC is crowing about discovering something and we know they haven’t discovered anything, we should say so.”

Mainstream news organizations’ newfound aggression in fact-checking their fellow journalists may also be a reaction to the rise of websites that offer critiques of the media’s political coverage. Sites such as the liberal Media Matters for America and the conservative Newsbusters helped carve out a new type of media analysis that’s constantly rebutting and fact-checking individual news stories, talk-show interviews, and other political-related content.

Traditional news organizations that delve into media commentary often find it’s popular with readers. Hiltzik said his blog posts about Deborah Cavallaro generated some 32,000 “likes,” far more than anything else he’s written lately, while Wemple’s two-year-old media-criticism blog at The Washington Post attracts a consistent audience.

“People care about what’s on TV,” Wemple said in a phone interview. “When you write about cable and when you write about broadcast news, you tend to get a lot of traffic and comment.” For example, Wemple’s recent debunking of reports about a Florida woman’s Obamacare woes was referenced by dozens of other sites.

Criticizing the critics, debunking the debunkers

Not surprisingly, columns and blog posts that criticize specific news stories sometimes themselves become fodder for a second round of critiques. After Hiltzik’s pointed attack of the Cavallaro coverage, Conn Carroll at the conservative website Townhall responded with his own analysis, headlined “Debunking the Debunkers.”

One of the news organizations that broadcast Cavallaro’s story also defended its work in an interview with Poynter.

“I think people like Michael Hiltzik are kind of overlooking the context,” said “Marketplace” editor George Judson, who noted that Cavallaro was one of several voices in a broader radio report about consumers who are receiving insurance-cancellation notices.

“We were simply telling people that this was going on, and here was somebody who was angry,” Judson said in a phone interview. “What we published was accurate.”

Cavallaro herself also responded to Hiltzik during her most recent interview, an appearance on Hugh Hewitt’s national radio show. She praised Hiltzik for “doing a good reporting job” and confirmed that she hadn’t shopped on the Covered California exchange to see what insurance plans are available to her.

But she also brought up two issues that were omitted or glossed over in most of the media stories. She said she’s reluctant to enroll in the less expensive plans because they may not include her current doctors, and she’s avoiding the California exchange website, apparently because she’s heard news reports about privacy concerns with the federal exchange.

In that interview Cavallaro wasn’t confined to a short sound bite or two and came across as more enlightening and likely more representative of people on the individual insurance market who are struggling to navigate Obamacare’s rollout — which is indeed plagued with problems, notwithstanding the sometimes misguided media coverage.

No, Cavallaro’s not being forced to go uninsured, as some journalists trumpeted without question. But the new law may require her to make compromises as she chooses a new health plan. And she — like several of the other Americans portrayed in the media horror stories – is getting little information about her options from her insurance company or the government.

“It appeared as if [the media] decided the story was people getting kicked off their plans and being bummed out, so that’s the story they told,” said Wemple, who argues that more-nuanced reporting would be both more informative and more compelling. “The straight-up simplistic story that they told wasn’t nearly as interesting.”

Adam Hochberg is a contributor to “The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century.” The new book is a compilation of essays and case studies edited by Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, with a foreword by Bob Steele, for use in newsrooms, classrooms and other settings dedicated to a marketplace of ideas that serves democracy. Find more information about the book here. Read more


New PolitiFact service will fact-check pundits


PolitiFact will launch a service called PunditFact that will be “dedicated to checking claims by pundits, columnists, bloggers and the hosts and guests of talk shows.”

Poynter — which owns the Tampa Bay Times that operates PolitiFact — is a partner on the project. The Ford Foundation and the Democracy Fund are funding it with seed money from Craigslist founder Craig Newmark’s group craigconnects.

Poynter will analyze “the reach and impact of PunditFact and will hold a conference to discuss the results,” the announcement says. Read more

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Magnifying Glass - Facts

Researchers find politicians may fear fact-checkers

In the months before the 2012 election, state legislators in nine states received letters from two political scientists.

“We are writing to let you know about an important research project,” the letters began.

It wasn’t just a letter letting them know about the project — the letters were a core piece of the research, as were the politicians themselves.

Some of the letters informed legislators that PolitiFact had set up shop in their state, and that the researchers were conducting work related to “how elected officials in your state are responding to the presence of this fact-checking organization during this campaign season.” It also told them that, “Politicians who lie put their reputations and careers at risk, but only when those lies are exposed.” Read more


Study about PolitiFact — OK to call it a study?

PolitiFact Editor Bill Adair was careful to call a study that claimed his shop “rates Republicans as less trustworthy than Democrats” a “press release” when I asked him for comment about it last week.

“The authors of this press release seem to have counted up a small number of our Truth-O-Meter ratings over a few months, and then drew their own conclusions,” Adair wrote. (Poynter owns the Tampa Bay Times, which owns PolitiFact.) I asked the spokesperson for George Mason University’s Center for Media and Public Affairs for a copy of the full study, about which I had indeed received a press release. In return, CMPA spokesperson Kathryn Davis sent me the following tables: Read more

Michele Bachmann

Fact-checkers, copy editors on why they’ll be affected by Michele Bachmann’s retirement

U.S. Rep Michele Bachmann announced early Wednesday that she would not seek her seat next year, an announcement that will land hard on two constituencies: Fact-checkers and copy editors.

“She was great to cover because she was consistently and unapologetically wrong,” Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler told Poynter in an email. “But others will fill the breach, I am sure!” In a post bidding her adieu, Kessler wrote that Bachmann’s absence “will leave the Capitol a much less interesting place to fact check.” Read more


Study: PolitiFact finds Republicans ‘less trustworthy than Democrats’

Center for Media and Public Affairs

George Mason University’s Center for Media and Public Affairs studied 100 PolitiFact fact-checks during President Obama’s second term. The organization “rated Republican claims as false three times as often as Democratic claims,” a press release says.

PolitiFact rated 32% of Republican claims as “false” or “pants on fire,” compared to 11% of Democratic claims – a 3 to 1 margin. Conversely, Politifact rated 22% of Democratic claims as “entirely true” compared to 11% of Republican claims – a 2 to 1 margin.

A majority of Democratic statements (54%) were rated as mostly or entirely true, compared to only 18% of Republican statements. Conversely, a majority of Republican statements (52%) were rated as mostly or entirely false, compared to only 24% of Democratic statements.

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Is Truth-O-Meter the real issue in Maddow’s latest blast at PolitiFact?

The Tampa Bay Times’ fact-checking site PolitiFact has drawn another heated rebuke from MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow, who accuses it of “ruining fact checking” and being “truly terrible.”

But at the risk of looking like a homer — the Times signs my checks as its media critic — I think Maddow’s gripe with PolitiFact boils down to the same thing that’s rankled other critics: the site’s Truth-O-Meter rulings. (Additional disclaimer: Poynter owns the Tampa Bay Times.)

On Tuesday, Maddow took issue with PolitiFact ruling as “Half True” a statement from tennis legend Martina Navratilova that “in 29 states in this country you can still get fired for not just being gay but if your employer thinks you are gay.” That number is the amount of states with no statewide law banning employment discrimination for sexual orientation.

But PolitiFact noted that several factors work against making blanket statements based on a lack of state laws. Some government employees have protections against sexual-orientation discrimination even in those 29 states. Cities in states lacking such laws have passed their own legislation banning workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. (Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are two examples.) Some employers have union rules and written internal policies barring such discrimination. And some laws banning gender discrimination can also protect gay people, depending on how a case is argued.

But are such exceptions enough to make Navratilova’s statement “Half True”?

I’m betting that’s what bothered some who read the PolitiFact analysis. I would have given Navratilova’s words a rating of “Mostly True,” since a) PolitiFact didn’t seem to calculate how many people might be protected by these exceptions; and b) the exceptions seem like minor ones. As I see it, “Half True” overstates the case because it implies a substantial error or falsity.

The Truth-O-Meter, which assigns statements to six categories on a scale from “True” to “Pants on Fire” for out-and-out falsehoods, has been both PolitiFact’s most successful and most controversial element.

On the one hand, it provides a handy, quick method for branding PolitiFact, recognizing its rulings and communicating its decisions. Anyone looking to laud or blast a statement can use this shorthand; Daily Show host Jon Stewart even used his smartphone to read former GOP candidate Herman Cain a “Pants on Fire” ruling during the program’s visit to the Republican National Convention in Tampa.

But on the other hand, the Truth-O-Meter can provide an easy source of criticism. Maddow also blew up at PolitiFact in February 2012 when the site ruled “Mostly True” a claim by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio that “Americans are majority conservative,” citing a 2011 Gallup poll that found 40 percent of Americans identified as conservative, compared to 21 percent liberal and 35 percent moderate.

Again, this is ruling I would dispute, because 40 percent is a long way from 51 percent. I probably would have ruled it “Mostly False,” because the real number isn’t a majority, even though it is the largest category of the three measured by the poll. (After taking a lot of criticism, PolitiFact eventually changed its ruling to “Half True.”)

PolitiFact’s explanations of its rulings are an effort to go beyond the literal truth of a fact or set of facts to judge the overall impact of a statement. In politics, it is easy to lay out three true statements and reach a false conclusion; the subjective Truth-o-Meter rulings are a way of addressing this issue. And by laying out the facts it weighed in reaching a ruling, PolitiFact lets the reader make his or her own decision. As long as the facts PolitiFact presents in its arguments are true, criticism that the site is “ruining fact-checking” overlooks much of what it does.

Some critics have asked whether PolitiFact has set out to tweak liberal sensibilities with some of its rulings, perhaps offering a harsher Truth-O-Meter setting to look even-handed in political squabbles. People who work on the site insist that isn’t happening, but readers can look over PolitiFact’s rulings and decide for themselves.

That’s an important difference between PolitiFact and Maddow’s latest critique of it. Even while lambasting PolitiFact for a supposed error, Maddow never fairly explained the facts assembled by the site to challenge Navratilova’s statement, dismissing them as “unrelated information.” And that makes it tougher for Maddow’s viewers to judge if her analysis was fair.

So in this case, it seems, both sides might have a little to learn about fair arguments and rulings. Read more


New NYT video series will fact-check the past

The New York Times Co. | Retro Report | The New York Times

The New York Times Co. Monday announced a video collaboration with Retro Report, which “Fact-Checks Yesterday’s News,” in the words of a Times release. The videos will run on the Times’ Booming blog.

Future reports will take on crack babies — “we learn that warnings in the 1980s about these children being damaged for life were not supported by the research of the time or by more recent studies,” Michael Winerip writes — and the Tawana Brawley story.

Retro Report says it combines “documentary techniques with shoe-leather reporting” because “the first draft of history can be wrong.” Read more

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Bill Adair: Fact-checking ‘is a good investment’


Bill Adair says in an interview with Brendan Nyhan for Columbia Journalism Review that while he is leaving newspapers for academia, the lessons he learned from founding PolitiFact are worth sharing with all of journalism. Fact-checking, he said, is needed more than ever.

“The challenge is that news organizations are so strapped that they are looking for things to cut, not things to add such as factchecking,” he said. “I’m hopeful they’ll realize that factchecking is a good investment — and one that readers love.”

Verifying statements validates the role of journalists as guardians against misinformation, Adair said, a job that seems to have fallen by the wayside. Read more