The concept of the political fact-check was revolutionary a decade ago when it first was introduced at scale. PolitiFact, born at the St. Petersburg Times, won a Pulitzer Prize for its new approach to journalism — and rightfully so.
But as with any form of journalism, the fact-check is subject to the bias of the person doing the fact-checking. And that bias has gotten pretty egregious in North Carolina.
Fact-checks from the state’s leading media outlets are under increasing scrutiny, particularly among conservatives. That’s especially true this April, after two controversial fact-checks were published by The News & Observer.
The first is titled: “Fact check: Are abortion survivors covered by existing laws?”
The second: “NC doesn’t have the second-most drug overdose deaths.”
These fact-checks generally fall into one of a few common traps. Often, they’ll choose to focus in on scrutinizing a throwaway statement or supporting detail rather than engaging with the broader issue.
They’ll quibble over, for example, whether North Carolina ranks second or 10th in a data category rather than whether the bill to address the issue is a good one or not.
And then on the back-end, they apply ratings in a selective fashion. In plenty of circumstances, a detail might be incorrect but the broader point valid. Liberal politicians tend to get higher ratings than their conservative counterparts when this happens.
Compounding the issue, the fact-check formula has been adopted by partisan organizations, muddying the waters. A myth-buster email on Medicaid expansion from Gov. Roy Cooper’s press office, sent to the state’s reporters Tuesday, is a good example.
In today’s episode of the Longleaf Podcast, we go through all three recent examples of fact-checking from the News and Observer and the governor’s office.
We evaluate them with four big questions you can use to determine if a fact-check is misleading or not.
How do you know if a fact-check is biased?
You’ll have to listen to go line-by-line through the specific fact-checks. But this framework is helpful for you to be a smarter news consumer.
1) What did they choose to fact check?
Are the reporters fact-checking an important element of the debate? Or are they trying to litigate out a technicality?
Oftentimes, journalists will choose to fact-check a throwaway statement or
2) How did they define the scope of the fact check?
Do they define the statement narrowly, evaluating the literal meaning of each individual word? Or do they engage with the broader question raised?
3) Do they offer a full examination of the evidence?
Are the reporters willing to fully disclose counter-evidence, or do they pick-and-choose what makes their argument stronger?
4) How do they apply the benefit of the doubt?
In many cases, a statement might technically be false, but the broader point is true. How do the reporters handle that?
Cover image of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences via the state of North Carolina.