I Can’t Handle the Truth

by journojames on May 3, 2012

Originally published Mar. 30, 2012

William Faulkner once sarcastically commented, “Facts and truth really don’t have much to do with each other.”

The Nobel Prize laureate had a point: people find different truths from a single set of facts. And here lies the challenge for journalists, fact-checkers, and — for at least one morning session — our J556 Online Seminar class.

Consider this: “the majority of Americans are conservatives.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Photo by Joe Raedle, courtesy of Getty Images

That’s what Florida Rep. Sen. Marco Rubio claimed anyway in a speech at the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington on February 9.

Is it true? Is it even factual?

That was the question posed to us. Our class was given the challenging task of checking that declaration and then determining whether this seemingly simple but bold statement was accurate.

The fact-checking website Politifact, operated by the Tampa Bay Times, beat us to the punch weeks ago, but we were more interested in how our assessment compared with the Pulitzer Prize-winning site.

Politifact evaluates statements like Rubio’s, cleverly rating utterances on something called a “Truth-O-Meter” that has rankings ranging from “True” for completely accurate statements to “Pants on Fire” for absolute lies.

It branded Rubio’s statement “mostly true.” But was it correct in its assessment? Many people evidently didn’t think so. And after a substantial public uproar over the rating, Politifact backtracked and amended its own finding to “half-true.”

Our class – after some mild deliberation – determined the same claim as “mostly false.”

A couple things struck me while working on this exercise. One, fact-checking is difficult. So potentially tedious and complicated, in fact, it made me realize I’m not cut out to be a professional fact-checker. Two, I wonder if Politifact would be better off simply offering facts and abandoning its Truth-O-Meter? The well-intended tool — as demonstrated in this case — doesn’t necessarily help clarify statements or issues; it actually makes things murkier.

Fact-checking can be a Sisyphean task. It should be easy, right? You take a statement and then do research to find data that supports or refutes it. But, it’s not that simple. The world we live in is rarely black and white with easy “yes” and “no” answers; it’s a complex world of many shades of colors, and many times, the answers lie somewhere in between “yes” and “no” and “right” and “wrong.”

Photo courtesy of saintpetersblog

Take Rubio’s statement again: “The majority of Americans are conservatives.” Am I supposed to check it for its literal accuracy or am I supposed to find out if what he meant was accurate? See how it’s already getting complicated?

According to Politifact’s explanation of their initial assessment, it relied on the Gallup Poll to determine whether Rubio spoke the truth. But, wait. How accurate is the Gallup Poll? Do their “facts” represent the truth? Why not use some other data and figures? Who’s checking Politifact’s fact-checkers to see if they were accurate in their fact-checking?

Ugh. These were the kinds of impossible questions that kept popping up in my head. But does that mean we stop doing it? In spite of me wanting to quit, the answer is “no.” Fact-checking may seem impossible at times but it can and should be done; it’s an important and worthy endeavor. We should always be striving to find the truth. We need fact-checkers but we also need better tools and ways to decipher statements like Rubio’s.

Fact-checking has grown from a cottage industry to a competitive corner of the journalism market according to an article on WNYC. Besides Politifact, other third-party sites seeking the truth include FactCheck.org and NewsTrust.net. But, the offshoot of FactCheck.org, FlackCheck.org, may be doing some of the most sophisticated and entertaining fact-checking work on the Internet.

The site produces videos that deconstruct political ads using humor as their main weapon to discredit untruths. Humor may be the most effect way to combat factual inaccuracies and outright lies. Just ask Jon Stewart of the Daily Show. He’s been doing it successfully for years.

Jon Stewart of the Daily Show, Photo courtesy of the Atlantic Wire

I appreciate the admirable intent of all these noted fact-checking sites. But the truth is, sometimes their clever ideas, such as the Truth-O-Meter, seem to confuse readers rather than help clarify the political gobbledegook gushing from the mouths of politicians.

The idea of having sites solely dedicated to fact-checking is relatively new. It seems to be progressing for the better, but it’s a process that will take time to develop. What I take away most from this exercise is this: fact-checkers must verify information as best they can, offering facts when they can, but it should then leave the decision up to the public to decide whether somebody spoke the truth or whether his or her pants were on fire.

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