Friday, September 7, 2012

Pants on Fire

It used to be that the news media included platoons of small, quiet mysterious people up the back of the newsroom or hiddeni in dusty offices full of reference books and magazines. These creatures were known as “fact-checkers”, and they would examine the detail of news stories to ensure an acceptable level of truth.

These days, most journalists are expected to check their own facts – it’s called “research”. Young reporters are taught to research as part of their role, and the research is now so much faster and easier with the internet, something not dreamed of when the role was first created, around a hundred years ago. There are still researchers within media organisations but rarely are there more than a handful, and smaller operations just can’t afford them.

Now, in the era when everyone outsources everything, some new companies are starting to spring to life. These companies offer a professional fact-checking service to anyone who wants to pay for it…and in recent weeks, plenty of people have been happy to pay experts to have facts checked.

In the age of the Internet and instant communication and open access, why is it necessary to have specialists check facts? Because it appears that people – particularly politicians, but also lobbyists and interest groups – may not always tell the truth, or may package the truth in order to obfuscate the meaning. That's before the news media has had a chance to add their spin. Not all do, but if you're not paying attention, it's hard to tell the difference between those who spin and those who report. For this reason, we need to check facts.

The perfect example in Australia was the Australian Christian Lobby’s Jim Wallace’s provocative statements that suggested that smoking cigarettes was healthier than pursuing a gay lifestyle. He even cited studies and statistics to support his argument. Crikey’s own Get Fact has looked at Mr Wallace’s “facts”  in considerable depth, and here’s their conclusion:
  So, while the gay population does appear to experience a disproportionate prevalence of negative health effects brought on by others, the evidence that gays die earlier than straights is dubious at best. Accordingly, we rate Wallace’s claims as mostly rubbish.

In the USA, it’s Convention Season, and although the Democratic Convention is continuing, their speakers’ speeches are being thoroughly checked. The  Republicans held their conference a couple of weeks ago. Their candidate for Vice President Paul Ryan, has been roundly criticized for all sorts of crimes against reality. In addition to his embarrassing lie about his best marathon time, has identified several more inaccuracies in the speech during which he accepted the nomination to be Republican Candidate for Vice President under Mitt Romney.

TAMPA, Fla. — Paul Ryan’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention contained several false claims and misleading statements. Delegates cheered as the vice presidential nominee:

• Accused President Obama’s health care law of funnelling money away from Medicare “at the expense of the elderly.” In fact, Medicare’s chief actuary says the law “substantially improves” the system’s finances, and Ryan himself has embraced the same savings.

• Accused Obama of doing “exactly nothing” about recommendations of a bipartisan deficit commission — which Ryan himself helped scuttle.

• Claimed the American people were “cut out” of stimulus spending. Actually, more than a quarter of all stimulus dollars went for tax relief for workers.

• Faulted Obama for failing to deliver a 2008 campaign promise to keep a Wisconsin plant open. It closed less than a month before Obama took office.

• Blamed Obama for the loss of a AAA credit rating for the U.S. Actually, Standard & Poor’s blamed the downgrade on the uncompromising stands of both Republicans and Democrats.

• And when he wasn’t attacking Obama, Ryan was puffing up the record of his running mate, Mitt Romney, on taxes and unemployment. has also investigated Bill Clinton’s fact-laden speech from yesterday. Described by as a fact-checker’s nightmare due to the sheer number of statistical and historical claims, they have nevertheless assessed the speech, and summarised it like this:
"Republicans will find plenty of Clinton’s scorching opinions objectionable. But with few exceptions, we found his stats checked out."

In Australia, we’re checking facts too. Here in Queensland, the new LNP Government’s Independent Audit of Queensland’s finances has been reviewed by Professor Bob Walker of the University of Sydney Business School, and found to be inadequate. Professor Walker is not a junior media staffer; he is an expert in the field. Steve Austin interviewed the Professor this morning.

This review should be of concern to all Queenslanders, as this report is the Government’s justification for the “essential” programme of cost-cutting, as well as being their answer to most questions.  If this review is correct, the LNP Government will have a hard time justifying the cuts they’re making to the public service, particularly today, when over 2700 jobs are being taken out of the Health Department.

In fairness, Professor Walker’s report was commissioned by Queensland Council of Trade Unions, and the report’s conclusions support the position most beneficial to the Trade Unions. Some listeners to Steve Austin’s interview this morning feel that because the results benefit the group that commissioned the report, the entire report lacks credibility. I find this criticism troublesome, as the Audit Report that was being investigated was commissioned by an LNP Government, and prepared by a former Coalition treasurer: the original Interim Report says what Premier Newman and his team need it to say in order to justify their criticism of the previous government.

If Professor Walker’s report is biased, so is Mr Costello’s audit.

But back to the USA for a moment, where the professional and amateur fact checkers are breaking records to score President Obama’s Acceptance Speech. With such a focus on fact-checking, several organisations are worth watching. For the best look at how American politicians are shaping up during the two months between now and election day, keep an eye on PolitiFact for broad coverage of who said what and who lied.

In Australia, there's not enough fact checking for my liking. Leigh Sales' interview with Tony Abbott proved that! But keep an eye on Crikey for their healthy cynicism and separation of fact from spin.

In any case, don’t believe everything you read on the internet, or see on television, unless it’s a live, real-time, unedited broadcast, but keep reading, keep watching and keep questioning.

Update: 9:00pm. President Obama's speech has been fact checked, and there are no major lies, although a few points could have benefitted from more information, clarification or context.

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