Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Testing truth

PolitiFact was created by the Tampa Bay Times to determine the truthfulness of public statements, mainly those made by politicians, but anything said by anyone, including the media, can be subject to judgment. There is a PolitiFact website, and a detailed analysis of some statements are printed in the Times several times a week. PolitiFact strives to be objective, and certainly members of both political parties and groups of all kinds have been rated both true and false. But just how objective is it really?

A journalist for more than 40 years, I strove for objectivity every day (or at least those days when I was not writing editorials or columns) and I know how difficult that can be to achieve. Bias can sneak through in a million ways without our even being aware of it.

With PolitiFact, though the goal may be objectivity, a number of subjective decisions have to be made along the way. For example, which statements, among the thousands made each day, are going to be selected for testing? Certainly there must be a temptation to check those statements one disagrees with more than those one agrees with.

Which, of all the statements checked on the website, will be printed in the newspaper? And where in the paper will they be placed? Those appearing on the front page or on section covers will be seen by more people than those buried on inside pages. Sometimes statements are checked individually, other times as part of a group of related statements. Those judged by themselves, whether determined to be true or false, will presumably get more attention.

Then there is the very subjective matter of how a statement is judged and by what standard. On Sunday the Times rated a comment made by House Speaker Paul Ryan, abbreviated by the Times to, "We tax our exports and don't tax our exports." To rate the accuracy of that statement, PolitiFact turned to Joel Trachtman, professor of international law at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. (This raises the obvious questions of how objective Professor Trachtman is and how truthful his own statements were.)

What the professor said is that Ryan's comment was "in principle true, but there's a lot of important exceptions." Among these exceptions are tariffs, which if not taxes have very much the same impact as taxes. Ryan's office "acknowledged to us that tariffs are another form of tax, but pointed out that he had been asked about the tax code, which is administered by the Internal Revenue Service rather than the U.S. Customs and Border Protection," the article said.

Ryan's statement was rated "half true," although it might just as easily have been judged "mostly true." Yet the headline on the article, "House speaker stumbles on issue of U.S. tariffs," suggests his comment was "mostly untrue."

Anytime one attempts to generalize or to speak of something complex in just a few words, the statement will almost always be something less than perfectly true. Take the statement, "Americans are free," for example. We hear this all the time, especially around the Fourth of July. But someone could point out that educators, doctors, businesses and others in America face mountains of regulations, good or bad, restricting their freedom and limiting their efficiency. And the IRS confiscates a significant portion of workers' income before they even see it. So are Americans free, or is that statement, like Ryan's, just half true?

As another example, take the simple statement, "PolitiFact is objective." The best we could say is that it is mostly true. Were I to let my own bias slip in, I would have to call it no better than half true.

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