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American Journalism Review: PolitiFact’s ‘off-the-mark conclusions are undermining its credibility’

By on February 15, 2012

On Monday, I concluded that PolitiFact had jumped the shark after it ventured into shallow waters and fact-checked a claim made on a factional television show.

PolitiFact editor Aaron Sharockman laughed off my criticism via Twitter — and probably rightly so.  But Sharockman and Co. may want to pay attention to the criticism being leveled at them by Rem Rieder, editor and senior vice president at American Journalism Review.

Rieder, who says there is no bigger fan than him of the rise of the fact-checking movement in contemporary journalism than him, writes that PolitiFact’s “off-the-mark conclusions are undermining its credibility.”

The latest controversial conclusion made by PolitiFact involves a statement made by Senator Marco Rubio at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference.  There, Rubio said, “”The majority of Americans are conservatives.”

PolitiFact checked this claim by citing Gallup, which in 2011 found that “the largest group of Americans identify as conservative, at 40 percent. Another 35 percent identify as moderate, while 21 percent identify as liberal.”

But that’s a plurality, not a majority — as every critic of PolitiFact has rushed to point out, including Rachel Maddow who ridiculed PolitiFact for messing up a ruling so obvious.

PolitiFact’s Bill Adair — who seems to spend more and more time defending PolitiFact  — responded to Maddow in a statement to Dylan Byers of Politico:

Our goal at PolitiFact is to use the Truth-O-Meter to show the relative accuracy of a political claim. In this case, we rated it Mostly True because we felt that while the number was short of a majority, it was still a plurality. Forty percent of Americans consider themselves conservative, 35 percent moderate and 21 percent liberal. It wasn’t quite a majority, but was close.We don’t expect our readers to agree with every ruling we make. We have published nearly 5,000 Truth-O-Meter ratings and it’s natural that anyone can find some they disagree with. But even if you don’t agree with every call we make, our research and analysis helps you sort out what’s true in the political discourse.

As Jamison Foser points out (via the Huffington Post), the problem with Adair’s statement is that PolitiFact has an established standard for rulings on matters where majorities are conflated with pluralities. In January, when Ron Paul suggested that a majority of Americans favored the gold standard, PolitiFact ruled this was “false.” Why? Because “44 percent isn’t a majority.” That’s the precedent.

This is as it should be. As Jason Linkins concludes, if a polling organization conflated a plurality with a majority, they’d be laughed out of town for the error.

None of this gets past Byers, who notes that “Adair’s defense serves to prove Maddow’s point” and succinctly concludes, “So Rubio’s statement isn’t true. It’s false.”

But to be criticized by Rachel Maddow is one thing.  It is her job to have a point of view.  You can’t say the same thing about American Journalism Review’s Rieder, one of journalism’s pre-eminent media critics.

“It seems to me that PolitiFact is complicating its life by getting too caught up in interpretation and implication,” Rieder writes. “It should get back to basics: Is a statement true or false, or somewhere in between? In both of these cases, the answer was clear-cut, but PolitiFact’s conclusion wasn’t.”

Rieder suggests PolitiFact “needs to be much more rigorous about sticking to the facts, and not worrying about the implications, when it reaches its conclusions.”  Finally, Rieder concludes “(t)hese misfires are seriously harming PolitiFact’s credibility. And that’s something it simply can’t afford.”

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