What is a “small error” at PolitiFact?

Jeff D, the co-creator of the “PolitiFact Bias” website, and I have often joked that PolitiFact’s principles are more like guidelines than actual rules. That’s a reference to a classic line from Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean,” about the so-called “pirate’s code.”

And so it is with PolitiFact’s principles. PolitiFact’s corrections policy offers it an easy out from its responsibility to correct transparently. PolitiFact commits to a correction notice at the top of an article when the the change was enough to affect the “Truth-O-Meter” rating. Other errors of fact “receive a mark of correction at the bottom of the fact check.” Here’s the oft-used loophole (bold emphasis added):

We correct typos, grammatical errors, misspellings, transpositions and other small errors without a mark of correction or tag and as soon as they are brought to our attention.

Our recent request for a PolitiFact correction met with partial success when PolitiFact altered its claim that a proposed law might result in penalties for lawmakers. PolitiFact, as expected, changed “lawmakers” to “lawbreakers” but without a correction notice. That action fits with the idea PolitiFact classified its mistake as a small error and not an error of fact.

Using “lawmakers” instead of “lawbreakers” clearly counts as an error of fact. But PolitiFact skirts its code of principles by considering it a “small error” or even a misspelling so that it can excuse itself from including a correction notice.

That approach is unprincipled and dishonest. A principled PolitiFact would treat an error of fact as an error of fact regardless of whether it also considers the mistake a “small error.” If a “small error” does not represent a clear error of fact, then PolitiFact may ethically fix it without a correction notice.

Another error in the same fact check may qualify for that treatment. The fact check still says “The four protesters later turned themselves into police” where it should have said “in to police.” That’s clearly a grammatical error, though it’s still an error of fact as well. Scrupulous observation of its principles should lead PolitiFact to use the more thorough corrective action when a mistake qualifies for more than one category of response.

As for the part of our correction request that noted that likely none of the Durham protesters were arrested for blocking the road with their bodies? PolitiFact apparently considers that an irrelevancy or a minor error. But we won’t get any explanation from PolitiFact’s paragons of transparency.

They’re too busy correcting what they see as misperceptions to bother with accuracy. A small error is any error for which PolitiFact doesn’t want to post a correction notice.

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