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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Not Just the Facts

Here at FactCheck.org, we’re always excited to see news organizations devoting time to fact-checking. So we were pleased to see that the Associated Press had decided to fact-check Sarah Palin’s new memoir, "Going Rogue." Putting 11 reporters on the task strikes us as overkill, but that might just be because it’s four more than our entire staff. Still, we’re glad to see others taking up the fact-checking standard.

Not everyone was a fan, though. The Columbia Journalism Review‘s Greg Marx is unimpressed with the AP’s efforts. He chides the organization for considering “matters of interpretation and analysis” in lieu of focusing on factual missteps. Matthew Yglesias, a blogger at the liberal Center for American Progress, goes even further, arguing that “there’s something a bit weird about the whole fact-check conceit.” Yglesias goes on to compare fact-checking (the sort that we do) to the fact-checking that goes on in the publishing world, where articles are, well, checked to make sure that all of their factual claims are true. Marx has a similar view of fact-checking as a process of simply making sure that there are no false claims present. He chides the AP, writing that:

Marx: [I]n an increasingly contested political landscape and wide-open media environment, there really is a need for fact checking. There is value in forging a consensus across ideological lines that adherence to the facts is a prerequisite for public debate, and the AP is, theoretically, just the sort of institution that can help police politicians who mislead the public. But for the idea of fact checking to have any weight—and any hope of broad credibility—it must mean something more specific than “contesting a statement that we disagree with.”

We agree with that last sentiment. But we think that Marx and Yglesias are defining fact-checking too narrowly. Here’s one of the examples that Marx cites:

PALIN: Says Obama has admitted that the climate change policy he seeks will cause people’s electricity bills to “skyrocket.”

THE FACTS: She correctly quotes a comment attributed to Obama in January 2008, when he told San Francisco Chronicle editors that under his cap-and-trade climate proposal, “electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket” as utilities are forced to retrofit coal burning power plants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Obama has argued since then that climate legislation can blunt the cost to consumers. Democratic legislation now before Congress calls for a variety of measures aimed at mitigating consumer costs. Several studies predict average household costs probably would be $100 to $145 a year.

According to Marx, the AP is criticizing Palin for “selecting only those words uttered by her political opponent that bolster her case, and omitting information that would complicate her position.” Marx characterizes such a move as a common “debating maneuver, not a factual error.” We disagree.

In their book "unSpun," Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson (respectively, FactCheck.org’s and the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s directors) discuss what they call “the literally true falsehood.” This is a pithy way of pointing out that politicians often choose their words carefully enough that they can leave false impressions while still making claims that are technically true. Now we haven’t reviewed Palin’s book, so we’re not endorsing the AP’s characterization here, but if the AP analysis is correct, then the article is exactly right to show the full context of Obama’s claim. But by leaving out the context, Palin leaves her readers with the impression that the currently climate change bill will massively increase electricity bills. That’s not necessarily true, something that a fact-check would be correct to point out.

The broader point here is that politicians make lots of different kinds of misleading claims. Some of them are just flatly false. Others are so devoid of context as to leave a false impression. We spend a lot of time correcting false claims here at FactCheck.org. But an equally big part of our job is providing enough context for you to properly evaluate claims that may have been technically true, but that don’t tell the full story. We’re very careful to label out-of-context statements as “misleading” or “potentially misleading” rather than false.

None of this is to say that we fully endorse the AP’s story. Some of the examples Marx criticizes are items that we likely wouldn’t have included in one of our articles. That said, we do think that providing context for technically true but potentially misleading claims is an important part of what we do at FactCheck.org. And we encourage the AP – and every other news organization – to do more of it.