Seeking the truth one step at a time

The journalistic exercise of fact-checking is not a perfect science.

Think of it more as the media equivalent of instant replay.

Politicians, especially on the campaign trail, take credit for all kinds of things, like lower taxes, creating jobs and keeping promises. Sometimes they stretch the truth or even, dare we say, lie. Similarly, they heap blame, sometimes undeservedly, on opponents by the truckload.

With deadlines looming, often the best that journalists can do is quote those politicians accurately. The reader is left to decipher what’s true and what’s not.

For this reason, PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter was born.

Last Sunday, The Telegraph notified its readers that it is once again partnering with PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning project of The Tampa Bay Times, to examine the truthfulness of what New Hampshire politicians are saying.

This comes on the heels of our previous affiliation with PolitiFact, The Valley News and New Hampshire Public Radio last summer to fact-check statements of the presidential candidates and their surrogates leading up to the New Hampshire primary.

Now, it’s true fact-
checking has its imperfections. One major criticism is that fact-checkers get to decide which statements to check, which is a subjective exercise.

Granted.

Yet every other article we choose to publish in the newspaper or online also holds a degree of subjectivity. Anticipating the interests of readers is at the foundation of good journalism.

Having it any other way would reduce the media to mere stenographers.

In a sporting event, it’s usually the closest, potentially game-changing plays that are scrutinized with instant replay. Was that really a home run, first down, or three-pointer? If there’s a question, it’s usually worth another look.

The same is true in fact-checking. If there is a claim of fact that looks questionable, then it’s usually worth another look. Just like in sports, we evaluate the evidence and make the call.

Another criticism is that journalists themselves – Republicans, Democrats or something else along the political spectrum – can’t resist tilting the scales toward the ideology they agree with most.

The same criticism is made in professional sports. Referees are accused of making calls that are overly generous for one team and overly critical of the other. There’s no doubt it happens.

But in nearly every professional sporting event, there is more than one referee. If one ref gets it wrong, there should be others in position to help get it right.

After every PolitiFact article is written and edited, a panel of three independent editors – some in Washington and some in New Hampshire – evaluate the claim, the reporting, the sources that were included and those that weren’t. When there is consensus we got it right, we make the call.

Finally, some say that despite our best efforts, we just get it wrong.

The same is true in sports. Just ask anyone in the Bay Area and New England how they feel about a call the refs made during the infamous “Snow Bowl” in 2002 between the Raiders and the Patriots.

For legions in one city, the decision that Tom Brady didn’t fumble the football because of the “Tuck Rule” was the greatest sham ever perpetuated. Closer to home, it was the right call
to be made, without which the first of three New England Patriots Super Bowl victories never would have been.

We get it.

Some people will vehemently disagree with our rulings. Others may love them. Either way, the stakes are high. Still, we call them like we see them.

We are willing to stick our necks out to be the refs of political discourse in New Hampshire.

And as PolitiFact Editor Bill Adair likes to say, “Even if you disagree, our articles will make you smarter.”