More Fact-Check Ethics, And What It Tells Us About PolitiFact And How Fairly The News Media Will Treat Donald Trump

Just imagine how frustrating it must be to be a stopped clock and have people stiff claim you are wrong one of the few times you are right!

Just imagine how frustrating it must be to be a stopped clock and have people stillclaim you are wrong one of the few times you are right!

Constitutional law professor Eugene Volokh was intrigued when the infamously left-biased “non-partisan fact checking source” Politifact “fact-checked” Donald Trump’s recent assertion that “crime is rising.” The professor did his own fact-checking on the Tampa Bay Times’ verdict that…

“If you look at overall violent and property crimes — the only categories that would seem inclusive enough to qualify as “crime,” as Trump put it — he is flat wrong. In fact, crime rates have been falling almost without fail for roughly a quarter-century. We rate his claim Pants on Fire.”

Volokh’s conclusion? Trump’s statement can not be fairly called “Pants on Fire,” because in regard to violent crime, it’s true. Aggregate crime is not rising, but PolitFact’s statement—“If you look at overall violent and property crime”—is deceptive, and suggests that both violent crime and property crime are falling. (Uh-uh-uh! Bad Fact-Checker! Fact-Checker must not be misleading and deceptive!) Notes the professor:

[T]he preliminary 2015 and early 2016 data suggest that violent crime is indeed rising….The FBI’s preliminary 2015 data indicates that violent crime rose by 1.7 percent, with murder going up by 6.2 percent and rape going up by 1.1 percent or 9.6 percent, depending on the definition that is used. (Property crime continued to decline, falling in total by 4.2 percent.) And the increase appears to be continuing in early 2016. The Major Cities Chiefs Association reports — based on data from 63 reporting agencies — that violent crime in the first quarter of 2016 was up over the first quarter of 2015. In particular, homicide was up 9 percent in the reporting jurisdictions, and rape was up 4 percent.

When Volokh asked the PolitiFact staff to explain themselves, he got this masterpiece of evasion and tap-dancing:

“We took a look at the trendline of crime over a period of years because Trump’s statement was quite broad, without qualifiers and part of comments that painted an overarching image of a nation in decline. . . .

The AEI analysis looks at preliminary data for 2015, which we did not look at because it is fact preliminary and subject to revision. Two experts we checked with before publication warned us that such data may not be indicative of a real trend. Also, more pertinently for our purposes, Trump didn’t say that crime was rising “recently” or “in recent months” or “over the past year.” We would have turned to that data if he had.

Finally, our fact-check acknowledged the point made in the AEI piece: that there are spikes in crime rates in some cities. However, that does not invalidate the overall trend of falling crime rates over the past 25 years.

   We stand by our rating of Pants on Fire.”

What a weaselly way to avoid saying, “OK, you caught us. You’re right, and Trump was right: the data does suggest that violent crime is rising, and since he followed up “crime” with ‘people are scared,’ it is likely he was primarily referencing violent crime. We’re sorry. We really are untrustworthy bastards who think the end justify the means and are driven by confirmation bias. We’re quitting our corrupt version of  partisan advocacy disguised as journalism, and will be starting new careers as ice sculptors.”

Says Volokh, a lawyer arguing with journalists, who don’t have the same reverence for or facility with factual analysis:

I don’t find this a persuasive defense. If the original PolitiFact post had said something like, “The violent crime rate has plummeted in the past 25 years, and while it may have been increasing in the last year and a quarter, that could easily be an anomaly, and our data on that are just preliminary and may not be sound,” I would have thought it a sensible criticism of Trump’s assertion. We should indeed be cautious about data that are limited to one year, or (as with the 2016 first-quarter data) to a subset of jurisdictions. There is some degree of short-term variation within any long-term trend; data from a year and change aren’t really enough to tell whether 1) the long-term violent crime decline has been reversed, or 2) the year was just an anomaly and the decline will continue, or at worst, the violent crime rate will remain flat. For instance, the violent crime rate increased in 2005 and 2006, but those proved to be just small blips in an otherwise substantial decline.

But that’s not what the PolitiFact people said; they said “Pants on Fire.” They didn’t point to the data that suggests that Trump may have been literally accurate as to recent violent crime, even if one can plausibly argue that the 25-year trend is more important than the current 1.25-year possible upswing. Instead, they just categorically asserted that Trump outright lied on this point (unless there’s some nuance in “Pants on Fire” that I’m missing). They included a quote from an expert briefly nodding to there being “some spikes in homicide and shootings in certain cities,” but the quote was immediately followed by saying that “other cities continue to experience low rates.” And though a paraphrase from another expert briefly noted a “possible upward swing in the past year or so,” it said that any such upswing “wouldn’t show up in the data currently available.” There was nothing to acknowledge that some real, albeit preliminary, recent data does indeed suggest that violent crime is rising, though there may be reasons to discount that data.

Bingo.

So how could an alleged fact-checking service check a statement that says violent crime is rising, discover that it might indeed be rising, and yet rank the statement “Pants on Fire” any way? (I do enjoy Volokh’s arch “unless there’s some nuance in “Pants on Fire” that I’m missing” comment.) I’ll tell you how: it’s Donald Trump; they don’t like Donald Trump; so they are going to misinterpret whatever he says to seem as bad as possible; they are going to manufacture reasons to criticize him (as if he doesn’t supply enough legitimate ammunition every day); and they are going to warp their campaign coverage to influence voter beliefs and attitudes so their party’s candidate prevails.

That’s how disposable integrity, fairness and honesty are to a journalistic enterprise with the cajones to represent itself as qualified to check the truthfulness of other people’s statements, so you can guess how the rest of the news media is going to operate.

5 thoughts on “More Fact-Check Ethics, And What It Tells Us About PolitiFact And How Fairly The News Media Will Treat Donald Trump

  1. First, this disclaimer…I suspect Trump is almost as honest as Clinton. Note that I said ALMOST. But to deliberately distort what he says (most of which is total lunacy anyway) so that it appears even less trustworthy is NOT what I would call ethical.

    • I read what you said, and it got me to thinking, it’s gotta be almost impossible to distort anything Trump says – kinda hard to add chaos to an initial condition of absolute entropy (to be fully pseudo-scientific).

      • Actually, Lucky, since I’m a retired psychologist, let’s try this…”It’s hard to make the metaphorical speech of a psychotic any less understandable.” But, it is possible. Listen to him trying to explain himself sometime. Hilarious. But sad.

  2. I’m so sorry I didn’t catch this post days ago!

    Great points all ’round, especially the one about PolitiFact not liking Donald Trump. Sure, they like him for the clicks he provides, but Trump is another Michele Bachmann for the fact checkers. That is, a figure the fact checkers perceive as unreliable and whom they wish to paint as unreliable in their reporting turns into a target.

    Lucas Graves worked as a guest intern at both PolitiFact and FactCheck.org and wrote his dissertation at Columbia about fact-checking. He reported this from his training at PolitiFact:

    Trainees were told about how Bachmann’s PolitiFact record
    became an issue on the campaign trail: “This is valuable. This is important. We accurately captured that she had a real problem with accuracy.”

    Motivated to expose figures like Bachmann but it doesn’t affect story selection? That seems doubtful on its face.

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