Tuesday, September 28, 2010

FACT CHECKING THE FACT CHECKS: Pearce, Arizona Republic, Rep. Steve King All Get "F's"; Arizona Republic's "Illegal Immigrants and Crime" - Wimpiest Fact Check Ever?

Arizona's Politics hearts Fact Checking (in case you had not yet noticed).  And, given the responses to several Fact Check articles on this site, I am not alone in loving accountability when a candidate/officeholder tells a whopper.  However, much of the benefits of good (and well-distributed) fact-checking can be completely undone by wimpiness in expressing an opinion as to the truth or falsity of the item being checked.

Now, it is unlikely that the reporters at the Arizona Republic/Channel 12/Cronkite School are the individuals determining what the final rating of a statement is.  Especially, when it is an ASU journalism school student doing the reporting.  Because it is hard to imagine that an award-winning student reporter who has already demonstrated a journalist's (good) strong principles would do the reporting that he has on State Sen. Russell Pearce's (R-LD18) use of statistics and still come up with a finding of "inconclusive."

Background: Pearce sends out a fund-raising, get-your-attention e-mail for "Ban Amnesty Now".  In it, he states as fact that "an estimated 9,000 American citizens are killed every year by illegal aliens.  That's 25 American citizens per day killed by illegal aliens, averaging 12 by stabbings and shootings and 13 by DUI and related crimes."

Student reporter Vaughn Hillyard did a thorough job trying to track down ANY backup for Pearce's stats.  He learned that Pearce attributes it to a report released by conservative Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) in 2006.  Interestingly, Hillyard learns that King's office has tried, but cannot find a copy of their report.  Nor, can they figure out how they came up with the numbers.

Hillyard tracks down a GAO (Government Accountability Office) report from 2005 - which King has apparently asked the GAO to update - and finds that it does not support the Pearce/King numbers.  Hillyard checks the FBI's uniform crime report, two organizations that study immigration, and the Department of Homeland Security - none of which has wanted to and/or been able to come up with such a number. For good measure, the reporter reaches an author/university professor in the area, who flat-out states that the statistic "is complete fabrication."

"The Finding" from the Arizona Republic? "INCONCLUSIVE".  Wow.  Even the source's office says that they cannot find the report or back it up.

The Republic published that bold fact check in the paper on September 21 - it was on the website a couple of days before that.

Interestingly, just as Arizona's Politics was researching this article last Friday, we found that the Republic had removed the Fact Check from its database.  Completely gone, no explanation.

Today, we were going to research THAT, when we re-checked and found that an UPDATED version was posted last night.

King's office apparently found the missing report, and learned that it does NOT include the statistic in question.  So, alas, the new version adds another nail in the coffin yet retains the "INCONCLUSIVE" finding!

So, does the "inconclusive" finding have any justification?  After all, a Congressman must have had something to back up his trumpeting of an inflammatory number, right?  It comes down to that old adage of "you can't prove a negative," and the legal version of who has the burden of proof.

The Republic has obviously determined - for whatever reason - to give Pearce the benefit of the doubt and to take on the burden of disproving anything Pearce might say.  Even though Pearce and King (and other like-minded individuals) are using the statistic to alarm people, the Republic does not believe that the legislators have the burden of proving their numbers with verifiable information.

Is this a standard determination for others doing fact checking?  No.  While the major fact checkers are accustomed to being criticized from all sides for their difficult calls, they consistently put the burden on the person making the claim in dispute.

The most recent example is likely this one where PolitiFact gave comedian/pundit Bill Maher an unqualified "False" rating for repeating a statement that he had just read in an Associated Press news report.  The claim (that we still have some natural gas pipelines in the U.S. made from wood) is disputed, but Maher got a false rating for innocently repeating it.  Here is the very relevant final paragraph, with the spot-on final sentence:

Does this establish conclusively that there is no wooden pipe currently in use? No -- it's impossible to prove that without exposing every inch of the 2 million-plus miles of natural gas pipe in the country. We also can see why Maher would have trusted an AP report (if that's what he did) since we, too, tend to give the AP a high degree of credibility. Still, if you eliminate the AP's claim of existing wood pipe, since Kocher now disputes it, we see no evidence that wood pipe is currently being used. And since the burden of proof for the Truth-o-Meter falls on the speaker, we rate Maher's claim False.  (underlining added)

That is the ONLY place that the burden of proof should rest for a Fact Check!  A Fact Checker must be bold enough to call a statement without proof "FALSE".  I doubt that a fact check reporter - student or otherwise - would do all the checking that was done in this case, only to conclude that the reporting was inconclusive;  an editor or publisher could/would do that. 

Arizona's Politics will, therefore, hand out the following grades:
1) State Sen. Russell Pearce: "F" for False.
2) Rep. Steve King: "F" for Failing to Find report... or supporting data.
3) Student Reporter Vaughn Hillyard: "A" for Accurately tracking down every possible source of
      supporting data.
4) Arizona Republic: "F" for their Feeble Fact Check "Finding".  (And, a "W" for Wimpiness,
      and a "Q" for the Questionable removal of first story.)

Disclosure: Arizona's Politics has NO connection with any of the parties mentioned in this story.

We welcome your comments about this post. If you have something unrelated on your mind, please e-mail to info-at-arizonaspolitics-dot-com. Thanks.

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