Opinion Journalism – Adding “Context” to Fact Checks

Dan Wardby Dan Ward

Time for my annual rant about “fact-checking,” otherwise known as opinion journalism. Sites such as FactCheck.org and PolitiFact claim to provide rulings on whether statements by politicians and pundits are factual, but the rulings are often just a journalist’s personal opinion as to the context and meaning of those statements.

Two examples from this week offer a perfect illustration (and I’m glad to say that, lest I be accused of partisanship, the examples should equally offend liberals and conservatives).
On Monday Josh Hawley, a Republican candidate challenging Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, claimed that “Claire McCaskill voted for 100 percent of President Obama’s judicial nominees.”
Should be fairly easy to fact-check a statement about a percentage of votes, right? Correct. It was very easy. In fact, McCaskill’s campaign confirmed that the statement was true.

PolitiFact’s ruling? “Mostly True.” You see, the fact-checker believes the factual statement was missing context because it didn’t also share that Republican senators voted in favor of President Obama’s nominees more than 80 percent of the time. So, a 100-percent factual statement is not 100-percent factual. See how this works?

The next day, Senator Charles Schumer claimed that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh “has said the president shouldn’t be investigated.” Has he said that?

Once again, PolitiFact provides plenty of evidence to back up the claim. Kavanaugh wrote in 2009 that “we should not burden a sitting president with civil suits, criminal investigations, or criminal prosecutions. The president’s job is difficult enough as is. And the country loses when the president’s focus is distracted by the burdens of civil litigation or criminal investigation and possible prosecution.”

PolitiFact’s ruling in this case? Only “Half True,” because Schumer didn’t recap Kavanaugh’s comments in full to provide additional context.

The lesson here is not that fact-checking should be eliminated. That genie’s already out of the bottle, and journalists long ago decided that their role in holding public officials to account requires that they use their personal judgment in deciding whether facts equal truth.

Our job as communicators is to prepare for the day in which fact-checking moves beyond politicians and pundits to include a review of the statements from our clients and CEOs. First, we must realize that being factual is no longer enough … we must provide context so that we don’t leave it up to the judgment of others to do so for us. Second, we must not be afraid to call fact-checkers to account when they get it wrong. Finally, we must resist the temptation to rely on fact checks to justify our own claims and actions.

We should not legitimize the practice of fact-checking until it returns to its journalistic roots: the checking of facts.

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