Scandal: Fact Checkers Fail at Accountability

complaint to the international fact-checking network about PolitiFact

Michael Wagner, Champion of Transparency II

We have noted the role of outside assessor Michael Wagner as a heroic figure practicing the transparency needed to bring this story to light. Wagner also used his 2018 and 2019 reviews of PolitiFact to make valuable suggestions for improving transparency at PolitiFact.

In his 2018 assessment of PolitiFact Wagner wrote:

(I)t might be worth considering including a page that publishes complaints and questions about the work PolitiFact does. Of course, many of these complaints will be of a nature that does not merit a response, but the transparency of noting the questions the organization is asked and the comments the organization receives would serve to counter some of the more conspiracy-minded complaints made about the important work PolitiFact does.

Zebra Fact Check applauds the type of policy Wagner recommended. Answering criticism defuses it and models the principle of transparency.

One caveat: This assumes that the organization can sensibly answer the criticism.

Wagner repeated his recommendation for increased transparency in his 2019 assessment of PolitiFact:

I also recommend that PolitiFact consider informing readers about the number and nature of the corrections requests they receive.

Regardless of whether PolitiFact has considered Wagner’s policy recommendation, PolitiFact’s website offers no visible sign it has adopted any such policy.

If it’s Good for PolitiFact, is it Good for the IFCN?

We hold that that the IFCN may receive the same gains from transparency that a fact-checking organization like PolitiFact might enjoy. Imagine the benefit to fact-checking if complaints submitted through the IFCN resulted in better practices by fact-checks like PolitiFact.

Alternatively, well-crafted rebuttals of would-be critics may likewise benefit fact checkers and the IFCN. As Wagner put it, such rebuttals could “serve to counter some of the more conspiracy-minded complaints made about the important work” fact checkers do.

A Shocking and Stony Silence

Surprisingly, mainstream fact-checking’s transparency advocates have offered nearly nothing in response to our inquiries.

On Oct. 6, 2019 IFCN Director Baybars Örsek confirmed the explanation we received from Wagner matched the explanation Wagner sent the IFCN.

On Oct. 14, 2019 Örsek affirmed the IFCN sustains a policy of sharing complaints it receives with the relevant fact-checking organizations. If the IFCN receives a formal complaint about PolitiFact, for example, the IFCN sends PolitiFact a copy of the complaint.

Zebra Fact Check has contacted the IFCN and the Poynter Institute to assert the IFCN owes the public either an admission of error with a plan for fixing the problems or else a sound rebuttal of the charges of error.

This Nov. 19, 2019 message to the Poynter Institute serves to illustrate:

The IFCN has two public complaint situations from the past year and botched at least one of them (involving Science Feedback). And the IFCN has stayed publicly silent about another set of valid complaints involving PolitiFact.

Poynter and the IFCN cannot earn a reputation for public trust by making decisions based on false information.

The public deserves an explanation for what occurred regarding PolitiFact. If Wagner is right and I am wrong, then please publicly disgrace me and my complaint. If I am right, on the other hand, I expect the IFCN to make a statement for publication about what it intends to do to rectify the situation.

What would explain the decisions by the IFCN and the Poynter Institute not to respond at all to multiple requests for an explanation?

What explanation would keep their silence from counting as another scandal?

Conclusion: Accountability Failed

Whatever the reason behind it, we find accountability for error lacking in the fact-checking community. We count it as alarming to encounter that lack of accountability from the IFCN, which bills itself in part as an agent for accountability.

Zebra Fact Check calls on the IFCN to address the scandal by living up to the standards of transparency and accountability it says it requires from fact-checking organizations.

It cannot accept an error-filled justification for declining to follow up on complaints about one of its “verified signatories.”

If in India only registered political groups count as political groups, then the IFCN should clearly explain how that works.

It cannot complete a review of a complaint about a fact check by one of its signatories and miss that the fact check used a rigged definition in its finding, among other problems.

Those who would hold others accountable for accuracy and transparency need to model accuracy and transparency in their work.

3 Comments

  1. Julian Ciaha

    No wonder the IFCN has done nothing regarding Zebra’s complaints about Politifact as the Poynter Institute that created the IFCN also just happens to own…Politifact! How is that for a serious conflict of interest?!

    Reply
  2. Julian Ciaha

    Micheal Wagner : ” PolitiFact is an excellent, transparent, industry-leading fact-checking site owned by Poynter”….Politifact is “transparent”?! I would like Wagner to show me the link anywhere online that has Politifact’s (or Poynter’s )annual reports so that the public can see an itemized List of Donors for each year….not holding my breath on that one!

    Reply
    1. Bryan W. White (Post author)

      While PolitiFact does not list individual donors (not even those giving $1,000 or more as FactCheck.org does), it is reasonably transparent about its funding.

      https://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2018/feb/12/principles-truth-o-meter-politifacts-methodology-i/#Our%20funding

      PolitiFact also links to a version of a filing form for its parent organization, the Poynter Institute. I didn’t see much on that for relating directly to PolitiFact, umbrellaed as it is under the Poynter Institute.

      Wagner laid it on pretty thick overall, but transparency on funding is one area where he’s not far from the mark.

      Reply

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