Amid Trump’s impeachment inquiry, journalists must distinguish fact from opinion

Category: Fact-Checking

Factually is a newsletter about fact-checking and accountability journalism, from Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network & the American Press Institute’s Accountability Project. Sign up here.

Sorting fact from opinion in the impeachment debate

When U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham appeared on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday to talk about a whistleblower’s report that touched off the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump, host Margaret Brennan challenged the senator on his assertion that the complaint was based on “hearsay.”

Much of what was in the complaint, she said, was backed up by a White House-produced call record detailing the July phone conversation between Trump and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky.

After some back-and-forth between the two, Graham (R.-S.C.) said: “Never mind. You know you’ve got an opinion and I got an opinion . . . I think this whole thing is a sham. I can’t believe we’re talking about impeaching the president based on an accusation based on hearsay.”

Essentially, Graham skirted Brennan’s attempt to fact-check his “hearsay” assertion in real time by labeling it all as opinion.

As the impeachment process moves forward in the U.S. House of Representatives, disinformation experts and fact-checkers are expecting to work overtime to sort fact from fiction.

But as every fact-checker knows, another challenge will be distinguishing fact from opinion.

At the same time that politicians like Graham are trying to spin fact as opinion, others are trying to paint opinions as facts.

Take for example an assertion by some Trump supporters that the full House must vote to authorize the Judiciary Committee to begin the inquiry, as it did with the impeachments of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.


RELATED TRAINING: Understanding Impeachment: A Guide for Journalists and Citizens


One may hold the opinion that the House should vote, to affirm that a majority supports the inquiry. “Must” is another question. Committee rules have changed since Clinton, and such a vote “probably isn’t necessary,” congressional expert Sarah Binder wrote in the Washington Post recently.

At times like this, when both facts and opinions are flying every which way, it’s important to discern between them. It’s not easy because they are so intertwined. A person’s opinions may be based on facts. But politicians sometimes try to disguise one as the other.

This distinction took on greater relevance this week when The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook would exempt opinion pieces and satire from the fact-checking program. Facebook made the move after complaints about fact-checkers labeling opinion articles from conservative outlets as false. (Disclosure: Being a signatory of Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network code of principles is a necessary condition for joining Facebook’s fact-checking project.)

But the exemption of satire and opinion from Facebook’s fact-checking efforts could mean that opinion pieces that use falsehoods to back them up will go unflagged.

“There are cases where the line between fact and opinion are not as bright as you might think,” Angie Drobnic Holan, editor of (Poynter-owned) PolitiFact, told the Journal.

There is an old quote attributed to the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D.-N.Y.) that a person is entitled to their own opinions but not to their own facts. As the impeachment inquiry heats up, it will be increasingly important for journalists to help readers see the difference.

. . . technology

  • In 2018, Facebook announced it would give some data to academics to study misinformation on the platform. But as BuzzFeed News reported in August, that partnership was delayed for more than a year. The New York Times published a good rundown of the situation this week.

  • Speaking of Facebook, in addition to exempting satire and opinion pieces from its fact-checking project, the company has also exempted politicians. Writing for The Washington Post, Abby Olheiser dove into Facebook’s defense of its decision: that politicians are newsworthy.
  • Bill Adair wrote an elegy to the Share the Facts widget for Poynter. Fact-checkers embedded the widget, which is being turned off for good this week, at the end of their articles to sum up the statement being checked, who said it and the rating.

. . . politics

  • The verbal attacks on Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg have been relentless. They go after her family, her image and the merits of her campaign. The IFCN’s Daniela Flamini reported what’s behind this antagonism.
  • Singapore’s “fake news law” took effect this week amid criticism from tech giants and activists who fear it will have a chilling effect on speech. Here’s where else governments have passed laws related to misinformation.

  • A Canadian non-profit is launching an anti-misinformation campaign called “Doubt It?” The collection of quizzes and public service announcements came in response to recent polling finding that Canadians are regularly exposed to misinformation but don’t always know how to combat it.

. . . the future of news

  • Services that will place “seemingly legitimate articles” on websites then spread them through inauthentic social media accounts have sprung up on criminal forums, according to a report from the Boston based threat researcher Insikt Group. Here’s NBC News’s report, which calls these actors “trolls for hire.”

  • A new report from the Oxford Internet Institute found that the number of countries that have experienced social media disinformation campaigns has risen to 70 from 48 in 2018. China is increasingly becoming a bigger player.

  • Two U.S. lawmakers teamed up to create a deepfake video for a House of Representatives subcommittee to illustrate the potential threat such videos pose. Lawmakers are increasingly concerned about the technology going into the 2020 election.

President Trump often points to his 2016 win when he’s under pressure from Democrats to argue that he has broad popular support. “Landslide” is a commonly used word.

In keeping with his strategy, this week he tweeted a picture, first shared by his daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, that showed a mostly red map (counties he won in 2016, as opposed to the blue ones Hillary Clinton won) with the words “Try to impeach this.”

But as CNN showed in a fact-check, there are problems with the map. First, it shows some counties that Clinton won as red instead of blue. Second, county-by-county maps can be misleading. As Holmes Lybrand and Daniel Dale wrote, such maps “do not distinguish between a county with millions of residents and a county with a few thousand.”

What we liked: There were several other good takes on the map as well, including stories from The Washington PostVoxThe Fresno Bee and a Twitter thread from the data visualization expert Alberto Cairo. We liked how CNN traced the origins of the map.

  1. Snopes published an in-depth investigation of a Facebook page that was run by Ukrainians and targeted older Americans with pro-Trump content.

  2. There’s a new tool for fact-checking manipulated audio.

  3. The Financial Times, reporting on the annual fraud and risk survey by the business intelligence firm Kroll, said “fake news” and the spread of false market rumors “are becoming an increasing headache for companies around the world.”

  4. After Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani made several inaccurate claims on TV over the weekend, Nieman Lab published a piece that questions the news value of live interviews.

  5. Three nonprofit organizations signed a joint statement calling on the platforms to do more to temper misinformation spreading about the Hong Kong protests.

  6. Vice News reported that a Twitter executive has been working part-time for a British Army psychological warfare unit known for conducting disinformation campaigns. Twitter is among his platforms.

  7. A viral story linked transgender healthcare to thousands of deaths. NBC News broke down why it’s false.

  8. The Finnish Broadcasting Co. has developed a new game to teach people about the spread of misinformation online. It’s called Troll Factory.

  9. A new study found that people who understand how the news industry works are better able to recognize and understand online misinformation.

  10. BBC published a deep dive into celery juice health misinformation — who started it, how it spread on social media and what doctors think about it.

That’s it for this week! Feel free to send feedback and suggestions to factually@poynter.org.

DanielSusan and Cristina

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  • The newsletter skips the biggest fact-checking news of the week.

    On Sept. 27, 2019, the International Fact-Checking Network concluded its investigation of a fact check published by Science Feedback that had been used to limit the reach of Facebook content published by the anti-abortion group Live Action. The review said the fact check should have disclosed the bias of two clinicians cited in the fact check but otherwise found “The findings of Science Feedback’s fact-check were based on publicly available scientific evidence and as not the result of any bias. The claim that “abortion is never medically necessary” is false and inaccurate.”

    The IFCN review failed to uncover the fact Science Feedback used an altered quotation to float one of its criticisms of Live Action content. And also overlooked the fact Science Feedback used a fallacious argument (equivocation) to condemn the accuracy of Live Action content.

    The IFCN’s action does much to undermine its credibility. A review, at minimum, simply has to detect that a quotation was changed from “could perhaps do” to “could do” where the fact check alleges the speaker is misleading the audience by making it sound like “could do” has no real strings attached.

    The IFCN could recover some credibility with a do-over.