Fact-Checking: Fact v. Friction

Published: February 3, 2016

By Jim Lichtman
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Fact-checking isn’t a perfect discipline, but it has become a somewhat reliable tool for individuals who wish to separate the absurd from the reasonable in political rhetoric.


On January 27 (Why do People Ignore Facts?), regarding presidential candidate Donald Trump I wrote, “If 77 percent of what comes out of Trump’s mouth on the stump is patently false, why do supporters continue to believe he’s trustworthy enough for the highest office in the land?”

One reader commented: “Why are you ignoring the fact that it’s irresponsible to take PolitiFact’s ratings and generalize those percentages to everything a candidate says? It’s not ethics, is it?”

In response, I wrote, “For months, Mr. Trump has been traveling the country speaking to vast crowds of citizens and the media touting how he would make a great president consistently using false statements. All political candidates are guilty of making false statements. However, when it comes to the facts, Mr. Trump is the most egregious among them. From an ethical standpoint, ALL candidates – Democrats and Republicans – need to stick to the truth more than they have.

“If you are running for the highest office in the land,” I added, “and 77 percent (according to PolitiFact), of what you are telling citizens across the country is “False” or otherwise misleading, that’s not just unethical, it’s just plain wrong.”

The reader’s rebuttal: “If a politician used data the way PolitiFact uses it for those ‘report card’ features it would likely result in a ‘Half True’ rating or the like.”

Regular readers to my site know that I am a stickler when it comes to the facts. In fact (no pun intended), I draw from three fact-checking organizations: PolitiFact, Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler, and FactCheck.org, a Project of The Annenberg Center for Public Policy.

In my response to the reader, I mentioned that both Washington Post fact-checker Kessler, and FactCheck.org and others have pointed out substantial false statements by Mr. Trump. But the reader suggests that PolitiFact seems to be only “Half True” in its reporting.

So, just what are PolitiFact’s standards? What are the protocols they use and are they accurate?

In a section entitled, “The Principles of PolitiFact, PunditFact and the Truth-O-Meter,” fact-checkers Bill Adair and Angie Drobnic Holan write, “PolitiFact and PunditFact rely on on-the-record interviews and publish a list of sources with every Truth-O-Meter item.

“In deciding which statements to check, we ask ourselves these questions:

“Is the statement rooted in a fact that is verifiable? We don’t check opinions, and we recognize that in the world of speechmaking and political rhetoric, there is license for hyperbole.

“Is the statement leaving a particular impression that may be misleading?

“Is the statement significant? We avoid minor “gotchas” on claims that obviously represent a slip of the tongue.

“Is the statement likely to be passed on and repeated by others?

“Would a typical person hear or read the statement and wonder: Is that true?”

Regarding their rating system, PolitiFact writes, “The goal of the Truth-O-Meter is to reflect the relative accuracy of a statement. The meter has six ratings, in decreasing level of truthfulness:

“TRUE – The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.

“MOSTLY TRUE – The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.

“HALF TRUE – The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.

“MOSTLY FALSE – The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.

“FALSE – The statement is not accurate.

“PANTS ON FIRE – The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.

Words matter – We pay close attention to the specific wording of a claim. Is it a precise statement? Does it contain mitigating words or phrases?

Context matters – We examine the claim in the full context, the comments made before and after it, the question that prompted it, and the point the person was trying to make.

Burden of proof – People who make factual claims are accountable for their words and should be able to provide evidence to back them up. We will try to verify their statements, but we believe the burden of proof is on the person making the statement.

Statements can be right and wrong – We sometimes rate compound statements that contain two or more factual assertions. In these cases, we rate the overall accuracy after looking at the individual pieces.

Timing – Our rulings are based on when a statement was made and on the information available at that time.”

Regarding their process:

“A writer researches the claim and writes the Truth-O-Meter article with a recommended ruling. After the article is edited, it is reviewed by a panel of at least three editors that determines the Truth-O-Meter ruling.

“We strive to make our work completely accurate. When we make a mistake, we correct it and note it on the original item. If the mistake is so significant that it requires us to change the ruling, we will do so.

“Readers who see an error should contact the writer or editor. Their names are listed on the right side of every Truth-O-Meter item. Clicking on their names will take you to their bio pages, where you can find their email addresses.

“When we find we’ve made a mistake, we correct the mistake. In the case of a factual error, an editor’s note will be added and labeled ‘CORRECTION’ explaining how the article has been changed.

“In the case of clarifications or updates, an editor’s note will be added and labeled ‘UPDATE’ explaining how the article has been changed.

“If the mistake is significant, we will reconvene the three-editor panel. If there is a new ruling, we will rewrite the item and put the correction at the top indicating how it’s been changed.

“We respect that reasonable people can reach different conclusions about a claim. If you disagree with a ruling, we encourage you to email the writer or editor with your comments about our ruling.”

The process that PolitiFact goes through, including a review by a panel of at least three editors, is both reasonable and important, as are corrections.

In fact, in a December 19, 2015 story, PolitiFact criticized Hillary Clinton saying “[Donald Trump] is becoming ISIS’s best recruiter. They are going to people showing videos of Donald Trump insulting Islam and Muslims in order to recruit more radical jihadists.”

At the time, PolitiFact writes that “No evidence for Hillary Clinton’s claim that ISIS is using videos of Donald Trump as recruiting tool,” and rated the claim as ‘False.’ ”

In an update to that story (Jan.5), PolitiFact adds: “About two weeks after Clinton’s comment, various news outlets reported that the terrorist group Al Shabaab had released a recruitment video that featured clips of Trump speaking shortly after the Dec. 2 terrorist shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., about his proposal for a temporary but ‘total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the U.S.’

“…we aren’t changing our rating, because we rate statements based on evidence that was public at the time the statement was made. Before she made her comment, Clinton had no way of knowing about the Al Shabaab video. SITE Intelligence Group, which found the video, said it was distributed on Twitter on Dec. 31. In addition, Al Shabbab is not affiliated with ISIS.”

In a section entitled, “Who Pays for Politifact?,” the website writes that, the “Tampa Bay Times… is the biggest newspaper in Florida, so the advertisers and subscribers help foot the bills for PolitiFact.”

The page also gives a history behind the paper and its owners, along with sources.

Similarly, FactCheck.org offers a page on their website that tells readers where they get their funding even offering financial statements. Inside Philanthropy, which focuses on oversight and transparency, writes, “FactCheck.org is totally transparent about its funding sources — going so far as to list a detailed breakdown of financial support by every quarter, the same standard expected of political campaigns and party committees.”

In this story, FactCheck offers a correction from January 28, which talks about a “Bogus Fox Graphic,” that Donald Trump used in a tweet.

FactCheck also offers a page called “Viral Spiral” which calls out numerous bogus claims circulating on the internet. i.e.: “That Chain E-mail Your Friend Sent to You Is (Likely) Bogus. Seriously.

Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler impresses me as another who does his homework.

On December 13, 2015, Donald Trump told Fox News: “Look at Benghazi, our ambassador. He wired her [Hillary Clinton] 500 or 600 times asking for help.”

While Kessler writes that, “As usual, Trump wildly exaggerated the figure,” the journalist takes us through what happened at the State Department and the differences cited in reports.

Using his so-called “Pinocchio” scale, Kessler rates false statements from 1-4 Pinocchios, depending how extreme the statement is.

In his 2015 round-up of the factually-challenged, Kessler writes that Donald Trump, “In the space of just six months, he earned 11 Four-Pinocchio ratings, far more than any other candidate.”

Number one on Kessler’s list: “Donald Trump falsely and repeatedly asserted that he saw television images of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the collapse of the twin towers after the 9/11 attacks. Despite repeated debunking of this claim, Trump continued to assert he was correct, even though he could produce no evidence except a handful of news stories that made brief mentions of alleged celebrations — which never could be confirmed.”

Kessler challenged one of Democrat Hillary Clinton’s statements: “DOMA [the defense of Marriage Act] had to be enacted to stop the anti-gay marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”

“…there is little evidence” Kessler writes (scroll down to read), “in the public record that was the case, even though Clinton claimed ‘there was enough political momentum’ at the time to amend the constitution. (Clinton later said it only had come up in ‘private discussions.’)

While fact-checking is not a perfect discipline, services like PolitiFact, FactCheck.org and Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler are, in this writer’s opinion, reasonably reliable and important when it comes to separating truth from friction, and making decisions about policies and individuals that have an impact on us all.


  1. Always fun to comment on my esteemed friend Jim Lichtman’s blogs. I wish more of you would chime in, as your email addresses will NOT be sold to the DNC or the RNC or even Tiger Haven.

    I raised, quietly, with Jim the simple thought that “Fact Checkers” most likely have agendas and get $$$ from sources. As in, “That is the way IT Works.” SNOPES has long been suspect and honestly, I don’t trust ANY of the Fact-Checkers. Just as when people ask me, “Who do you support for president?,” I simply reply, “I have absolutely NO idea what any of those people believe in, much less will do.” That is Fact Checking.

    In Jim’s last paragraph, he used the word “Friction.” Perhaps he meant “Fiction,” yet, somehow, “FRICTION” is what it really is.

    “While fact-checking is not a perfect discipline, services like PolitiFact, FactCheck.org and Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler are, in this writer’s opinion, reasonably reliable and important when it comes to separating truth from friction, and making decisions about policies and individuals that have an impact on us all.”

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