Updated Jan. 15, 2020; old version here.
Now a graduate of the Mass Media Studies program at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, Bryan W. White started writing criticism of the fact-checking organization PolitiFact in 2007.
In 2011, Bryan partnered with Jeff D, another critic of PolitiFact, to start the PolitiFact Bias website. PolitiFact Bias aimed to collect the best criticism of PolitiFact in one place and supplement that with original material.
We hoped the criticism would improve PolitiFact.
Bryan went on to create research methods using PolitiFact’s subjective ‘Truth-O-Meter” ratings to detect patterns of ideological bias. Many of those research ideas remain unpublished but are still in the works.
Years of finding fault with PolitiFact led to ideas that might improve fact-checking. In 2012, Bryan started Zebra Fact Check to road test those ideas.
Zebra Fact Check
Zebra Fact Check has helped innovate fact-checking with the following:
- Zebra Fact Check, to our knowledge, was the first and perhaps still the only fact-checker to implement the Report an Error (website sadly dormant) system. Each web page at zebrafactcheck.com features a button readers may use to report details of any errors they encounter at the website.
- Zebra Fact Check created the first fact checker rating system that uses concrete findings as the core of its ratings. ZFC ratings emphasize the commission of implicit or explicit fallacies. ZFC owes a debt to YourLogicalFallacyIs.com for coming up with graphic representations of fallacies that would otherwise have required development from scratch. We use their graphics with permission and with a deep sense of gratitude.
- Zebra Fact Check has always advocated authorial transparency. The fact check audience deserves disclosure regarding the bias of fact check authors. Bryan is a conservative.
- Zebra Fact Check, with a hat tip to W. Gardner Selby, former editor of PolitiFact Texas, led all fact checkers in publishing all email correspondence with interview sources. We remain unaware of any other fact-checking service that has adopted the practice across the board. Selby published return correspondence often at PolitiFact Texas. Our disclosure expands on that to include the questions we put to the experts.
- Zebra Fact Check stands second to none in aggressively publicizing its own corrections. Visitors to the main page of the website can find a prominent tab labeled “Corrections” that leads to a list of posts detailing all major corrections. Those posts share equal billing with other material in the ZFC story feed.
- Zebra Fact Check advocates using politically polarized fact-checking teams to help neutralize ideological bias in fact checks.
- Zebra Fact Check, in keeping with the above, advocates radical transparency as the most honest and sensible method journalists can use to earn readers’ trust.
An Evolving Mission
In recent years Zebra Fact Check publishes fact checks only rarely.
When fact checkers created the International Fact-Checking Network in 2015 to advocate for and provide a consistent set of standards for fact-checking, Bryan saw the need for a new media watchdog. After all, the International Fact-Checking Network shared ownership (and later a roof) with PolitiFact, one of its member organizations. How would the IFCN balance its advocacy and accountability roles?
Instead of focusing on new fact check content, Zebra Fact Check has taken to advocating improved methods for all fact checkers while pushing the IFCN to vigorously embrace its role in the enforcement of high fact-checking standards.
A short-ish list of the most memorable content from ZFC:
ZFC pointed out the problems with the mainstream fact checkers claim that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney falsely said that Fiat-Chrysler would build Jeeps in China.
ZFC took a deep dive into George Washington’s view of the Second Amendment, which required adjudicating between divided groups of experts. The story links to extensive interview material, thanks to the experts who graciously responded.
A ZFC attempt to track down the origins of a quotation attributed to Justice Brandeis led us down the same path a Brandeis researcher, Peter Scott Campbell of the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law, was already following. Campbell graciously served as the key source for the story, offering a preview of sorts of his article later published in the law journal The Green Bag.
Mainstream fact checkers, including venerable Annenberg Fact Check, peddled the false notion that Obama grew federal spending slowly. The mainstream fact checkers were snookered by President Obama’s front-loaded spending. Obama spent more than the competition but created the illusion of a slow spending increase by decreasing spending following the first three profligate years.
Yes, we fact checked a speech by a fictional character from an HBO show about television journalism, mostly because people were quoting it. It remains our most-visited page by far.
Was Zebra Fact Check the only fact checker to defend Obama after he tried to explain the rule-making process that led to the Affordable Care Act, leading to the cancellation of millions of insurance policies?
ZFC got it right in spite of its conservatism.
CNN’s John Blake completely misreported a social science experiment designed to show the effects of bias on the spread of rumor. Oh, the irony. CNN has never corrected the errors in Blake’s story.
Review: ‘Checking the Fact-Checkers in 2008: Predicting Political Ad Scrutiny and Assessing Consistency’
Occasionally Zebra Fact Check reviews fact check content in refereed journals. In this case, the three-part story chronicles how researcher Michelle Amazeen improperly used statistics to argue for the reliability of the mainstream fact checkers. Amazeen’s paper inexplicably passed peer review.
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