Saturday, December 22, 2007

How Would a Fact Checker Check Facts if a Fact Checker Could Check Facts?

There's been a proliferation of journalist-oriented political "fact checker" websites as of late, which we generally see as a positive development, given that checking facts should be, well, part of the job of being a journalist.

Here are a few suggested guidelines for fact checker pieces, particularly those focused on questions based on economic data:

  1. Seek to inform, not just proclaim right or wrong.
  2. Clearly indicate exactly the source of the data for the fact check, with links if possible, and provide instructions on how to reproduce the analysis. (For many economic fact questions, the raw information is available at the websites of the Census or the Bureau of Economic Analysis.)
  3. When possible, refer to studies by the two key nonpartisan government analytical agencies, CBO and GAO.
  4. Be highly skeptical of causal claims. Descriptive statements like "Murder rates declined by 50%" are clearly verifiable, while "Mayor Bob's policies reduced murder rates by 50%" are far more subject to dispute.
  5. Do not try to "fact check" claims that are obviously speculative or not possible to verify, e.g. "I will be the best president ever."
  6. Don't editorialize when not necessary, and don't write in the first person. We're reading your fact check not for your wit or your insights on a candidate's inner self.

How do the three main fact check sites stack up?

  • Politifact, from the St. Petersburg Times and Congressional Quarterly. The best of the trio, with a refreshing "just the facts" tone and clear links to all data sources.
  • The Washington Post's Fact Checker by Michael Dobbs. Clearly the worst of the three, more like a parody of what a fact checker should be. The post on economic growth rates (critiqued here by Dean Baker) is among the worst pieces of economic journalism I've ever seen. Dobbs has obnoxious tendencies to say things like "I'm going to give the candidate a pass this week" and to throw in irrelevant snarkiness with statements like "the Clintons can no doubt be blamed for a lot of things that happened in Arkansas." He's been threatening to rate all the candidates on their "overall truthfulness"--an impossibly subjective task which a serious fact checker would reject.
  •, put together by a team led by veteran journalist Brooks Jackson, funded by the Annenberg Foundation. During the 2004 election, the site was routinely derided as "Factchuck", but it appears to have added a larger research staff, which might help improve its work this time around. In the past, the site has sometimes displayed gratuitous editorializing and failed to being skeptical of claims of causal links. The approach of the site occasionally is too much that of "gotcha" journalism, finding contradictions where there are none. For example, the site once criticized a debate moderator for pointing out that there are "more than 40 million" Americans lack health care, because the actual figure is 47 million.
Needless to say, we will be able keeping a close eye on the fact checkers in the coming months.

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