To correct or not to correct: That is the question
In 2017, PolitiFact issued two ratings about Supreme Court reversals of the Ninth Circuit Court. Both fact checks made fairly elementary errors where a correction or clarification would have helped improve the fact check.
Sean Hannity and the Ninth Circuit
On Feb. 10, 2017, PolitiFact delivered a “False” judgment on a claim by Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity that the Ninth Circuit counts as the most reversed circuit court in the country. Evan Herman, a reader of the PolitiFact Bias blog, forwarded his correspondence with PolitiFact about the fact check.
Herman, basing his argument on Mollie Z. Hemingway’s article in the Federalist, made an excellent point. Hannity claimed the Ninth Circuit was the most reversed, but PolitiFact rated Hannity based on the reversal rate instead of the number of reversals. Hannity’s claim was literally true, but was rated flatly “False” by PolitiFact.
The error was basic. By analogy, one does not measure a claim about the most hits in baseball by looking for the top batting average. A batter with more at-bats may collect more hits than a batter with a higher batting average.
Herman badgered PolitiFact over its rating with a monthly email message until he coaxed a brief reply from PolitiFact editor Angie Drobnic Holan: “We are not correcting it, just fyi. You can stop emailing us.”
Does that count as a transparent and honest corrections policy?
President Trump and the Ninth Circuit
On April 26, 2017, PolitiFact again rated a claim about the Ninth Circuit, this time President Trump’s tweet saying the Ninth Circuit suffers a reversal rate of nearly 80 percent. Western Journalism published an article by Andrew Kerr pointing out PolitiFact’s wrongheaded mathematical approach to the fact check. PolitiFact calculated the reversal rate by averaging the yearly reversal rates for five consecutive years. Kerr rightly pointed out that PolitiFact’s approach produced inaccurate results.
Kerr said he received no response to his request for a correction:
Somehow, using those same numbers, PolitiFact said the reversal rate of the 10th Circuit during that time was 42 percent. PolitiFact’s faulty math resulted in a reversal rate that was off by more than 13 percentage points.
(Note: PolitiFact has not responded to my request for a correction)
Transparent? Honest? Scrupulous? The current version of the fact check offers no clue regarding Kerr’s sound challenge to its accuracy.
The secret to transparency is not keeping secrets
One of our earlier critiques of the IFCN verification process wore a title that was a play on words: “The Secret to Transparency.” Disclosing secrets, of course, serves as the secret to transparency. The IFCN keeps too many secrets. We’ve touched on some of the biggest ones in this critique, but the IFCN maintains other secrets we have yet to address.
The IFCN needs to determine whether it will best advance its principles by covering for organizations that fail to meet them or by holding those organizations publicly accountable.
Whatever the IFCN decides, Zebra Fact Check opts for the latter.
Correction May 14, 2017: Removed a needless “that” from the first paragraph following “President Trump and the Ninth Circuit”