Is context optional at PolitiFact?

If it’s about Trump it’s too good to check?PolitiFact 2015

Fact checkers in 2016 (not to mention 2015) showed a tendency to take vague statements from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and upgrade those statements via interpretation into relatively clear statements.

On December 2, 2016  a new PolitiFact story led us indirectly to a great example of this tendency.

Lauren Carroll’s ‘splainer on the Russian influence on U.S. elections featured a tantalizing mention of Trump’s foreign policy positions:

Some of Trump’s foreign positions happen to dovetail with Putin’s. This includes Trump’s potential unwillingness to defend NATO allies, support for Russia’s takeover of Crimea in Ukraine, and willingness to consider lifting sanctions against Russia. He has also praised Putin as a “strong leader.”

Did Trump support Russia’s takeover of Crimea? That was news to me. On what was this report based, I wondered?

The hotlinked “happen to dovetail with Putin’s” was the obvious place to start. That URL led to a PolitiFact story that referenced a statement from Trump that the Crimean people seem to prefer Russia to the Ukraine, along with a link to another PolitiFact story. That next story in the chain, by Linda Qiu, gives us our striking example:

“Crimea is and always will remain part of Ukraine,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said July 27. “We’re not going to allow, as we’ve said many times before, the borders of Europe to be redrawn at the barrel of a gun.”

But Trump doesn’t seem as committed to this position. When asked if his administration would recognize Crimea as Russian territory and lift U.S. sanctions, Trump replied, “We would be looking at that.”

This is where the real head-scratching started. Qiu got her kicker quotation of Trump from Twitter. And it is not automatically wrong to take a quotation from Twitter. If something is tweeted through Donald Trump’s Twitter account, it’s fair to count that as something Trump said. Assuming, that is, that no credible evidence of hacking exists.

But this case was not like that. This case had a German reporter tweeting out a breaking story related to a question she asked of Trump:

Though we would like to trust journalists universally, we thought it bizarre that Qiu linked to a tweet to back up the quotation of Trump. If reporter Mareike Aden’s story was worth the tweet, then we should find it posted at a reputable site with context.

When we found disappointing results from journalists, we decided to try to find a transcript of video of the press conference. It was not difficult. We found video at C-SPAN and created a snippet showing Aden’s question and Trump’s answer.

The most obvious problem stems from the discrepancy between Aden’s quotation of Trump and what Trump said. Aden’s quotation counts best as a paraphrase, but it also takes Trump’s reply out of context. In context, it does not look like Trump takes an affirmative position on ceding Crimea and relaxing sanctions on Russia. Rather, it looks like Trump dodges the question by saying his administration will look at the issue.

Aden’s tweet made it look like Trump plans to cede Crimea to the Russians and will look at ways to get that policy put in place. PolitiFact’s presentation aligned well with Aden’s.

The secondary and perhaps more disturbing problem, in terms of fact-checking, stems from Qiu’s failure to find an accurate version of the quotation and provide the context to her readers.

What fact checker rolls with an unverified quotation reported on Twitter? Seriously?


Note: We used Twitter to contact both Mareike Aden and Linda Qiu about the inaccurate quotation of Trump.

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