Thursday, March 08, 2012

Piquing PolitiFact: Journalistic ethics

On the heels of a related post, what do we make of the ethics of journalists who know they have published stories that contain errors and end up suppressing or ignoring the errors?

PolitiFact published a story purporting to fact check whether shark attacks in Florida outnumbered cases of voter fraud.  I posted an evaluation of that fact check, showing that cases where a felon voted illegally should warrant consideration for any reasonable tally of voter fraud numbers.  That and other avenues for fraud made PolitiFact's estimate of voter fraud in Florida into nonsense and the "Truth-O-Meter" rating a joke.

On March 4 I sent the following email to the team responsible for the story:
Dear Katie Sanders,
cc Angie Drobnic Holan

It's mind-boggling that the number of cases pursued for potential prosecution by the Florida Department of State was selected as an appropriate metric for the degree of voter fraud in Florida.  One might as wisely use the number of parking tickets issued to accurately reflect the amount of illegal parking.

The PolitiFact story might have been used to help inform people of the difficulty of enforcing voter fraud.  Our system makes fraud dead easy, and referencing a 1998 report from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement might have helped a journalist explain the issue in some detail.  The problem is catching people once a fraud is committed.  Only the most inept attempts result in apprehension of a suspect.

Sure, taking the ACLU spokesperson in the sense relevant to this claim makes it harder to measure the number of times fraud has occurred in Florida elections.  But of one thing you can be pretty certain:  Election fraud in Florida has taken place more often in Florida than documented attacks on human beings by sharks in Florida waters.  Indeed, it's likely we've had more fraud in Florida elections since the year 2000 than we've had shark attacks in the last 500 years.

No pressure.  I expect the usual non-response and failure to take action from PolitiFact. 

My apologies for the low expectations, Ms. Sanders.  This is, after all, the first time I've written to you.

Is the story changed?  No. Have I received any reply from either Sanders or Drobnic Holan?  No.

Were the low expectations justified?  I'd call that a big "yes," at least thus far.

The story is unambiguously flawed in a very significant way and apparently PolitiFact intends to do nothing about it.

I'll update as needed, if needed.

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