Don't ridicule 'alternative facts.' Fact-check them

2016 is back with a vengeance.

Last year, throughout the presidential campaign, journalists wondered how and whether to fact-check political figures live on air.

Kellyanne Conway's Sunday morning appearance on "Meet the Press" is a clear indication that those questions are as pressing now as they were then. The counselor to President Trump sparred with host Chuck Todd over the White House Press Secretary's unsubstantiated claims about the size of the crowds at Trump's inauguration. This is the key exchange:

https://twitter.com/MeetThePress/status/823184384559878144

Todd pushed back hard against Conway's suggestion that Press Secretary Sean Spicer provided "alternative facts."

"Alternative facts are not facts. They are falsehoods," Todd said. The Twittersphere melted down over this exchange, and #alternativefacts quickly became a worldwide trend.

Alternative facts do exist, though. That's why fact-checkers (usually) evaluate claims made by politicians on a scale rather than on a true/false basis. Whether a claim is true or not is determined by evidence that's more reliable and relevant to the claim at hand. Alternative facts may be irrelevant, but still true.

Here are just a few alternative facts: D.C. has an overwhelmingly Democratic population. Trump was inaugurated in the rain. Crowd measurements are often contested and uncertain. None of these prove Trump's inauguration crowd was the biggest in history, but they are not falsehoods either.

To be clear, the press conference was littered with falsehoods, not alternative facts. In chronological order:

  1. "This was the first time in our nation's history that floor coverings have been used to protect the grass on the Mall." False: these were used in 2013, too.
  2. "We know that 420,000 people used the D.C. Metro public transit yesterday, which actually compares to 317,000 that used it for President Obama's last inaugural." False: the 11 a.m. figures tweet by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority show 2017 ridership well below 2013, as did the end-of-day figures.
  3. "This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe." The part about in person participation is, if not outright false, antithetical to the best available evidence. Photographic analysis of crowd size has large margins of error, but experts don't seem to have any doubt that people in the actual National Mall were far fewer than in 2009.

Yet at no point in the full Conway interview did Todd push Conway to provide factual evidence for the specific claims made by Spicer.

Instead, he simply said that "four of the five facts he uttered were just not true."

Viewers not familiar with the facts in question — or the evidence disproving them — were not told which facts these were nor why they were not true. The closest thing to a fact check occurred earlier in the show, before Conway was on, when photos of the 2009 and 2017 inaugural crowds were placed side-by-side.

Conway was able to avoid addressing the veracity of Spicer's claims because the specific errors were not explained in detail during the interview. Because of that, she was able to turn the exchange into one about tone rather than fact.

"I think it's actually symbolic of the way we're treated by the press, the way you just laughed at me," she said.

I would wager that not a single viewer's mind was changed by this exchange, allegedly about facts. If a viewer trusted Todd more than Conway at the outset, they probably believed him about the crowd sizes. If the opposite was true, they probably did not.

Fact-checking an interview live on TV is extremely difficult and requires quick and expert production work.

But this morning's facts had already been checked by several other media outlets whose findings could have been brought up on air. Rather than being ridiculed over "alternative facts," Conway should have been challenged specifically over Spicer's metro ridership figures or his claim that this was "the largest audience" ever.

Unfortunately, approaches from 2016 seem set to continue well into 2017.

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