Tag Archives: fact-checking

Fact-checking: Channeling Arendt

Instead of naming opinions lies, we are better served by good investigative reporting and opinion journalism that makes sound arguments and clarifies the stakes. A well-reasoned article that seeks to argue pro or contra can offer a depth of opinion and insight that far surpasses the gotcha journalism of fact checking. What is needed is not a demand for simple factual reporting, but a willingness to read and talk with people with whom one disagrees.

From “Fact Checking the Fact Checkers,” by “RB” at the Hannah Arendt Center. The argument that too strong a focus on “fact checking” leads to the belief that the world is simpler and cleaner than it is seems close to prima facie true. But why believing in a simpler world is attractive, and what kind of utility the belief brings, look like they’re deep in Arendt theory, particularly regarding a person’s need for some sort of coherence and stability. Where would one go to start learning more about Arendt’s thinking?

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The Niall Ferguson affair: Beyond fact-checkers to argument-checkers

The reaction to Niall Ferguson’s Newsweek attack against Barack Obama interested me as I tried to fill in the blank: It’s important that Newsweek published a poorly argued article because ______________________.

Some writers, taking the journalistic angle, focused on the fact that Newsweek employs no fact-checkers:

In the case of the links listed above, the blank is filled: “it illustrates Newsweek’s disrespect for facts and shows how the magazine has fallen into disrepute.” The Ferguson article is so shameful because Newsweek ignored basic journalistic standards.

I read some of the web’s debunking of Ferguson:

What I read in those articles was calling out of mostly Ferguson’s conflations, irrelevant claims, and misleading transitions, but not as often factual inaccuracies. More often it was rebuttal along the lines of this, from O’Brien:

“The most recent estimate for the difference between the net present value of federal government liabilities and the net present value of future federal revenues–what economist Larry Kotlikoff calls the true ”fiscal gap“–is $222 trillion.”

That’s a lot of trillions! But if our fiscal gap is “really” this many trillions, why can we borrow for 30 years for a real rate of 0.64 percent? It’s because this number is meaningless. First of all, it seems to project many decades of growth figures and budget decisions that we simply don’t know will happen. It assumes the Bush tax cuts never ever expire and that the healthcare cost curve never ever bends. This is like projecting, in 1942, that the Empire of Japan will rule the entire Asian continent for 70 years based on a few years of battle outcomes. It’s an interesting prediction, but it’s not an empirical vision of the future.

or this, from Fallows:

He presents an ominous chart showing that, if Obama is reelected, China’s economy might become bigger than America’s around the time he leaves office … [the chart] … What this chart demonstrates is not “a nation losing ground” but the reality that China has four times as many people as America does. When its overall economy exceeds ours, its per capita output will be only one-quarter as great. A historian would presumably know that the conscious strategy of every president from Richard Nixon through Barack Obama has been to encourage rather than thwart China’s continued development, on the reasoning that a poor and festering China would be more dangerous to the United States than one that is becoming richer.

O’Brien and Fallows present rebuttals to poorly justified claims. But they do not write that Ferguson’s “$222 trillion” or “China’s economy” data are factually wrong. They write that the data are irrelevant, misleading, unconvincing, etc. That requires a certain amount of training in not just economics, but argument.

Would a “fact-checker” have noticed the same thing, or would they have been content with Ferguson’s provision of a source for the figure and the chart?

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that "a culture of fact-checking, of honesty, is as important as the actual fact-checking.

In my experience, seeing your name on the cover of a magazine will take you far in the journey toward believing your own bullshit. It is human to do so, and fact-checkers serve as a valuable check to prevent writers from lapsing into the kind of arrogant laziness which breeds plagiarism and the manufacture of facts.

But if there weren’t many “facts” out of sorts — as opposed to out-of-sorts arguments — then I don’t know how much the culture of fact-checking would have helped. What would have been more important is a culture that encourages you to have your reasons and evidence straight before opening your mouth, and I don’t know whether that’s the same thing. Maybe it is.

Then again, would a high-flying “celebrity” academic have been affected by such a culture of honesty? Might he “believe [at least some of] his own bullshit” when, as Stephen Marche noted, he takes $50,000 to $75,000 per speaking appearance?

Perhaps Ferguson’s view of himself wouldn’t matter. Suppose Newsweek had fact-checkers. Fallows supposes that they might have approached the work with a different lens than they would have Coates or some other journalist:

Scholars are supposed to be different from mere pamphleteers and journalists. We give the judgments of academics — like those of doctors, scientists, renowned jurists, etc. — extra weight because we assume that they have considered evidence, precedent, and probabilities more carefully before offering conclusions. Think: E.O. Wilson on ants and ecological patterns more broadly.

He almost — but only almost — makes the case that even fact-checkers wouldn’t have helped. Even if they had read the story, might they have made the same assumption that Fallows suggests and tread more softly around Ferguson’s work?

Finally, on the subject of intellectuals as valuable “brands,” and on the subject of a “higher standard” for scholars and academics, see Daniel W. Drezner’s post “Intellectual power and responsibility in an age of superstars”.

Thoughts about Lawrence and Schafer’s ‘Debunking Sarah Palin’

Regina Lawrence and Matthew Schafer recently published “Debunking Sarah Palin: Mainstream news coverage of ‘death panels.’” The abstract, slightly edited:

This study examines how traditional media reported on [Sarah Palin’s] ‘death panels’ claim that was immediately debunked by several fact-checking organizations. Our content analysis of over 700 newspaper and television stories shows that, to a significant degree, journalists stepped outside the bounds of procedural objectivity to label the ‘death panels’ claim as false, often without attribution. Many stories, however, simultaneously covered the claim in typical ‘he said/she said’ fashion, thus perhaps extending some legitimacy to the claim.

The paper sent my thinking toward two questions in particular related to argument in journalism.

What assumptions are in play?

'Death panel' imageFirst, this paper is relevant to discussing whether, when, and why arguments from authority might be appropriate for journalists to use. But there must be mutual understanding between reporter and audience of the assumptions involved.

A journalist’s assumptions about whether a source’s claims require verification change depending on the source’s characteristics. These characteristics can include the source’s position (“candidate for office,” “national security official”) and how they acquired that position (elected, appointed).

Lawrence and Schafer write that, given variations in whether journalists unexaminedly report claims:

An important question therefore becomes, under what conditions will the news go beyond reflexively reporting what key political actors say to engage in verifying the accuracy of those claims for their readers or viewers.

That journalists make these assumptions doesn’t seem shameful. But as a reader it would be helpful to know what the assumptions are.

Additionally, from a research perspective, the paper notes that scholars have spent time examining the situations where journalists do or don’t grant sources authority sans verification. I would be interested to see more of that work and whether the work judges the assumptions as justified or not. Where might I start?

Does it matter if they didn’t debunk ‘death panels’?

Second, the paper is primarily concerned with whether and how newspaper and TV journalists tried to show that Sarah Palin’s “death panels” claim was false.

Should we care, as consumers of journalism, whether journalists labeled the claim as false? Yes, I think, if the truth of the claim is important to a conclusion of the article.

Regina Lawrence commented on the subject of the articles in an interview with CJR:

We were actually surprised to find just a small handful of stories that actually looked at the policy discussion around so-called death panels. The death panels claim may be false in and of itself, but it comes from a larger, very important question: How are we going to provide for people who are going to have end-of-life counseling in a way that gives doctors incentive to do a good job of it, knowing they’re going to get reimbursed? That’s kind of the heart of the policy issue there. That’s what morphed into this claim about government bureaucrats deciding who will get care and who will not. We found literally less than five stories, if I remember correctly, in this whole sample of hundreds of stories, that actually talked in real depth about end-of-life counseling and the complexities and challenges of that. When the death panels claim came up, it quite often came up in a political context, as part of a political debate, part of day-to-day coverage of politics more than of policy.

It seems conceivable that the truth of the “death panels” claim was irrelevant to at least some of the conclusions in this sample of journalism — particularly the stories that were “part of day-to-day coverage of politics more than policy.” So in those stories, journalists might not have bothered with it, reasonably.

But would the truth of the claim have been irrelevant to many, not just some, conclusions in the sample? That’s harder to say. If the truth of the claim was relevant to many of the conclusions in the sample, then the findings of the paper would be troubling.

Furthermore, why bring the “death panels” claim into the picture at all if it was irrelevant to the conclusion? Why would they mention it if they didn’t need to debunk it for their own claim to be supported? If they needed to mention the claim, then why didn’t they debunk it with evidence?

‘Death Panel’ image by Heidi and Matt (CC BY-NC-SA)