When 'Facts' Are in the Eye of the Beholder
Do writers’ opinions insinuate their way into “fact” checking? This question has dogged the craft since fact-checking became a staple of modern journalism. Let’s look at two recent case studies, both by PolitiFact, to highlight this topic.
The first piece, “Headline exaggerates appointment of undocumented immigrant in California,” was published on May 14, 2018. The author, Amy Sherman, was looking into an article published on an obscure pro-Trump website. That article’s headline was: “It begins: California appoints first illegal alien to state office.” Sherman rates this claim as “Half True.” She provides readers with a combination of news accounts, and legislative and court documents to prove that Lizbeth Mateo, a 33-year-old lawyer and undocumented immigrant, has been appointed to a state advisory committee intended to get more poor students into college.
Sherman notes that the article’s headline “doesn’t fully capture” Mateo’s role. The appointment is to serve on an unpaid advisory committee, for one thing. Also, she isn’t the first undocumented immigrant to hold such a position. This is not entirely the pro-Trump website’s fault, Sherman concludes. “Although the state Senate initially said Mateo’s appointment was a first, it later found that the governor had appointed another undocumented immigrant to a state board in 2016,” Sherman writes.
So why the “Half True” verdict? Because, she explains, “the headline creates a misleading impression by omitting key information about the nature of her post.”
This sets a high bar for headlines, especially those appearing on websites and news outlets with a well-known ideological point of view. The word “misleading” in this context seems a matter of opinion. Sherman’s opinion. Think of it this way: If a reader took issue with Mateo’s appointment, would they really consider Sherman’s main caveat (i.e., that the position is unpaid) as evidence that they were being misled? Their objection would likely be rooted in the fact that the appointment was made in the first place, not whether Mateo is being compensated for her service. Whether you prefer the term “illegal alien” or “undocumented immigrant,” Mateo was appointed to a statewide commission. Although the story Sherman is evaluating was wrong to label her the first to be appointed, even those with a hand in appointing Mateo initially made the same mistake. On the facts, couldn’t this story warrant a verdict of “Mostly True”?
Asked for a response, PolitiFact executive editor Aaron Sharockman replied that because the assertion about Mateo being “the first” was in error, he believed many readers would classify the claim as false.
“The PolitiFact process (and the process of most fact-checkers) tries to balance both the literal accuracy of a statement, as well as how the statement might be interpreted by the average person who heard it,” he said. “In this case, we believe Half True most closely matched the facts. Our definition of Half True is, ‘The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.’”
The second PolitiFact piece is headlined “He’s on his 4th run for office in 6 years, but ‘IronStache’ Randy Bryce says he’s not a politician,” written by Tom Kertscher and published May 16, 2018. The issue here isn’t that Kertscher injects his own opinion; it’s that he treats an opinion as a fact that can be substantiated. The article concerns a colorfully nicknamed ironworker and perennial Democratic candidate for political office who is currently running for House Speaker Paul Ryan’s seat in Congress. Although Bryce (pictured) has run several times before and has attracted high profile endorsements from Bernie Sanders and the United Auto Workers this time around, he has never held office.
Bryce brands himself as a political outsider and everyman. Kertscher’s article looks into an assertion Bryce made on “The Circus,” a political documentary television program that airs on Showtime. Bryce claimed he is “not a politician.” True to PolitiFact form, Kertscher’s piece is full of serious reportorial legwork. Nonetheless, ultimately, he is “fact” checking an opinion. After consulting four different dictionaries on the term “politician,” Kertscher writes that “Dictionaries aren’t much help on this claim, given how widely the definitions of politician vary.” That might have been PolitiFact’s cue: that there is little factual basis on which to brand Bryce a politician or not.
Kertscher goes on to provide quotes from his interviews with political scientists and other political experts. They offer varied opinions. One argues that Bryce is a “wanna-be politician,” telling Kertscher that “it’s easier to say who is a politician,” meaning those who hold paid, elective office. Short of that, the professor said, the term becomes “a rhetorical somersault.” Another argues that “there’s not an obvious point when a person becomes a politician,” but adds that Bryce has done enough that he seems to be on the way to becoming one.
Kertscher marshals other arguments to bolster the notion that Bryce is a politician, including the national attention garnered by his campaign, the millions of dollars he has raised, and his various functionary roles in state and local Democratic parties. Kertscher’s sharpest punch is to say that Bryce’s claim “verges on disingenuous,” since “in the eyes of a typical ironworker who has never run for public office, Bryce’s four runs might make him look very much like a politician.” That hypothetical ironworker is entitled to such an opinion, but that does not make it a fact.
In closing, Kertscher observes that “there is no universal definition of politician.” So how is it possible for him to rate Bryce’s claim as “Mostly False”? Perhaps the original sin here is the decision by PolitiFact to mediate this question in the first place. Yes, “Politics” is part of the organization’s title, but so is “Facts.”
Tom Kertscher thoughtfully walked readers through the minefield of Bryce’s rhetoric, but in the end, the definition of a politician -- like that of beauty (and pornography) -- is probably in the eye of the beholder. In other words, this was not a question that really lent itself to a definitive fact-checking verdict at all.
Here, too, Aaron Sharockman offered another perspective.
“In nearly 11 years, we’ve fact-checked all types of claims,” he told us. “We’ve fact-checked Heineken, we fact-checked whether Rick Scott would have been Florida's first bald governor (nope, sorry), we fact-checked if former NFL running back Curtis Martin played a game in 15 inches of snow (not even close), and we fact-checked the Joker's origin story.
“PolitiFact Wisconsin has even taken on defining a politician before, when Ron Johnson called Russ Feingold a career politician. PolitiFact Wisconsin's verdict? Mostly True.”