Poynter is a serious and justly respected nonprofit school for journalism and journalism ethics organization. Naturally, it has been drawn into the “fake news” debate, which is unfortunate, since the issue itself has arisen not so much as part of a much-need effort to purge the new and old news media of biased and misleading news reporting, but as part of partisan attempt by the mainstream news media and others to find some explanation, any explanation, for Donald Trump’s election that doesn’t involve a genuine public rejection of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Poynter, as far as I’ve been able to determine, is scrupulously non-partisan, or perhaps hides its Democrat tilt better than the rest of its profession. Now it is being used by those who are not so trustworthy.
Poynter was in the news yesterday as a result of Facebook’s announcement that it will start “fact-checking, labeling, and burying fake news and hoaxes in its News Feed. Mark Zuckerberg announced that his social media platform will collaborate with a small list of media organizations, including Snopes, Factcheck.org, ABC News, and PolitiFact to accomplish this, and noted that these are part of an international fact-checking network under the guidance of Poynter.
Here’s a fact to check: Snopes, Factcheck.org, ABC News, the Associated Press, and PolitiFact are all partisan-biased operations to a greater or lesser extent. Facebook itself is a partisan biased organization. That Facebook would blandly cite three of these four to reassure anyone but the Democratic National Committee is proof positive that this is a cynical, untrustworthy exercise.
Factcheck.org is by far the most reliable, trustworthy and ethical of the four, but its presence among the others seems like an attempt to falsely imply equivalent trustworthiness. Factcheck.org appears to try to stifle the bias of its researchers and staff, unlike the rest, though it doesn’t always succeed. I was at a speech by the Annenberg Foundation’s website’s director, and caught her in partisan spin on the spot. I called her on it, too, with a pointed question. She was not appreciative.
As for the others? Snopes has been outed as a nest of partisan propaganda and hackery. ABC–seriously, who can do anything but roll their eyes at the assertion that ABC is trustworthy to check anything with a non-partisan eye? ABC allowed George Stephanopoulis, who owes his career to the Clintons, to cover the Clinton campaign and to interview Clinton critics, even after it had been discovered that he was a contributor to the Clinton Foundation—you know, the prominent money-laundering and influence peddling Clinton family enrichment scheme?—and hadn’t disclosed it! His wife later told reporters that she and George were preparing to leave the country if Trump was elected. Meanwhile, ABC’s news division credulously produces the daily orgy of ignorance and unhinged partisan freak-outs that is “The View,” whose “hosts” are prone to say things like this, from top dummy Joy Behar, who was explaining why Donald Trump just had to resign before he was inaugurated:
“Do we have to wait until the hammer and sickle is on the American flag until we stand up to this guy?”
Wait, I thought you said Trump was Hitler, Joy. Oh, communists, fascists, whatever! What rots more brains, obvious hoax news items like the Pope endorsing Trump, or the daily spewing of this kind of junk from Whoopie, Joy, Raven and the others? I don’t think its even a close call.
Though better than ABC, The Associated Press has a mixed record of integrity, competence and objectivity, beginning with its alleged deal with the Third Reich to abide by the Schriftleitergesetz, or editor’s law, which meant promising not to publish anything that could be “calculated to weaken the strength of the Reich abroad or at home.” Ethics Alarms has discussed many example of AP bias. Recently, the Associated Press stood with other biased news sources attacking Donald Trump’s tweeted suggestion that flag-burning should be a crime as if it was proof that he was the spawn of hell, while failing to note that Senator Clinton co-sponsored a bill to make it a crime, just a bit more serious than a mere tweet from someone who needs to attend some meetings of “Tweeters Anonymous.”
Then there’s PolitiFact, whose partisan bias is so obvious and blatant that whole websites are devoted to flagging it. (Some examples on Ethics Alarms are here.)
On many of the stories about this supposedly admirable pledge by Facebook (where staff tried to get Zuckerberg to censor Donald Trump’s posts), a link to Pointer’s “International Fact-Checking Network fact-checkers’ code of principles” :
The International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) at Poynter is committed to promoting excellence in fact-checking. We believe nonpartisan and transparent fact-checking can be a powerful instrument of accountability journalism; conversely, unsourced or biased fact-checking can increase distrust in the media and experts while polluting public understanding.
The code of principles is for organizations that regularly publish nonpartisan reports on the accuracy of statements by public figures, major institutions, and other widely circulated claims of interest to society. It is the result of consultations among fact-checkers from around the world and offers conscientious practitioners principles to aspire to in their everyday work.
A COMMITMENT TO NONPARTISANSHIP AND FAIRNESS
We fact-check claims using the same standard for every fact check. We do not concentrate our fact-checking on any one side. We follow the same process for every fact check and let the evidence dictate our conclusions. We do not advocate or take policy positions on the issues we fact-check.
A COMMITMENT TO TRANSPARENCY OF SOURCES
We want our readers to be able to verify our findings themselves. We provide all sources in enough detail that readers can replicate our work, except in cases where a source’s personal security could be compromised. In such cases, we provide as much detail as possible.
A COMMITMENT TO TRANSPARENCY OF FUNDING & ORGANIZATION
We are transparent about our funding sources. If we accept funding from other organizations, we ensure that funders have no influence over the conclusions we reach in our reports. We detail the professional background of all key figures in our organization and explain our organizational structure and legal status. We clearly indicate a way for readers to communicate with us.
A COMMITMENT TO TRANSPARENCY OF METHODOLOGY
We explain the methodology we use to select, research, write, edit, publish and correct our fact checks. We encourage readers to send us claims to fact-check and are transparent on why and how we fact-check.
A COMMITMENT TO OPEN AND HONEST CORRECTIONS
We publish our corrections policy and follow it scrupulously. We correct clearly and transparently in line with our corrections policy, seeking so far as possible to ensure that readers see the corrected version.
That’s nice. The problem is that ethical fact-check organizations, if there are any, would do all of this as a matter of course, and unethical ones will have no qualms about promising to abide by the “Code” when they have no intention of obeying it. Thus, I’m sure innocently, Poynter’s code just provided cover for the partisan spinners and fake fact-checkers on its long list that follows this..
By signing up to this code of principles, the fact-checking initiatives agree to produce a public report indicating how they have lived up to each of the five principles within a year from their signature, and once a year thereafter. The report will allow readers and others to judge to what extent the fact-checker is respecting the code of principles and will be linked to from this page.Being a signatory to this code of principles and publishing a report in no way implies an endorsement from Poynter’s IFCN or any of its members.
The signatories of the code on September 15th to December 15th are listed below.
Then we have this interesting note:
In light of Facebook’s decision that being a signatory to this code is a minimum condition for being accepted as a third-party fact-checker on the social network in its U.S.-based pilot project, we are currently rethinking the application and compliance process. Due to our limited staff, we won’t be adding new signatories until the new process is concluded in the coming weeks.
In other words, Poynter has no way of vetting the signatories, who can spin and deceive for at least a year before having to explain themselves, and also no way of ensuring compliance. Being on the list no more proves that a fact-checker is objective and trustworthy than belonging to a bar association proves that a lawyer follows the local rules of professional conduct.
Snopes, for example, is already in breach of the code. It’s misleading fact-checks on several stories have been decisively de-bunked, but no corrections have been forthcoming. In this it is hardly alone among the signatories.
All ethics codes do is provide guidelines for professionals who want to be ethical. A code’s existence doesn’t automatically make anyone more ethical, and often it provides cover for unethical professionals to abuse the public trust.