Fact check this, Bill Adair

Challenging Bill Adair’s definition of fact-checking

What is a fact checker?

People consider Bill Adair an expert on fact-checking. Before assuming a Knight Chair at Duke University, Adair helped create the popular fact-checking website PolitiFact. PolitiFact won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009.

So, if anyone can accurately define fact-checking, that person is Bill Adair. Right?

Maybe not.

Adair published his opening remarks to the third Global Annual Fact-Checking Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In his remarks, he touched on the definition of fact check journalism:

In the past year, the students and colleagues who maintain our fact-checking database have come across a couple of sites that primarily check one party in their political system. That’s not fact-checking; that’s advocacy. To be a reputable fact-checker, you must check all the players in your political systems.

As an admitted conservative and the publisher of Zebra Fact Check, Adair’s attempt to define me out of fact-checking hit close to home. Is he right? Am I an advocate and not a fact checker?

Let us evaluate Adair’s argument.

Adair says primarily checking one party counts as advocacy, not fact checking. But isn’t that an absurd assertion? Let’s overlook the fact that Adair says fact checking x is not fact checking. Fact-checking anything is fact-checking unless we are somehow playing equivocation games with the definition of fact-checking. No, let us go beyond Adair’s superficial self-contradiction and try to find the best of his argument.

If a would-be fact checker fact checks claims from just one political party, advocacy might be in play. Suppose the fact checker only fact-checks Democrats and always gives them favorable ratings. Some may consider that advocating for Democrats. Or suppose the fact checker only fact-checks Democrats and always gives them unfavorable ratings. Some may consider that implicitly advocating for Republicans. Both examples, then, could count as advocacy. But what kind of advocacy do we have if the fact checker of Democrats does each fact check fairly and thoroughly?

It’s far from clear that fact-checking just one party, by itself, means the fact checker has turned advocate, isn’t it?

Let us consider the same problem a different way. Consider Adair’s own creation, PolitiFact. Suppose we take all of PolitiFact’s stories on Democrats and put them on one website, PolitiFact D. And we take all of PolitiFact’s stories on Republicans and put them on another website, PolitiFact GOP. According to Adair, have we not created two advocacy websites? Even if we change not so much as an apostrophe in any of the published fact checks?

Absurd, no?

Perhaps Adair’s argument is best taken as hyperbole leading to his subsequent point: “To be a reputable fact checker, you must check all the players in your political game.”

Fact-checking everyone helps sustain the appearance of impartiality. You are a fact checker if you check just one party. But not a reputable one.

But this second alternative point of Adair’s earns its own challenge.

Suppose we made some changes to PolitiFact’s fact checks before dividing them between the two websites PolitiFact D and PolitiFact GOP. Suppose that every story that could have been more neutral and accurate was made so.

Under that condition, does it make any sense at all to consider unified PolitiFact more reputable than either PolitiFact D or PolitiFact GOP?

In practice, readers may not limit themselves to just one fact checker. So the end effect on the Internet is a unified body of fact-checking even if some of the individual fact checkers focus on just one party. And even if a reader uses PolitiFact exclusively, PolitiFact cannot control a reader’s inclination to consider only fact checks of one party. The reader, under Adair’s definition of fact-checking, has the power to turn the fact checker into an advocate.

Contrary to Bill Adair, one factor more than any other rightly contributes to a fact checker’s reputation: accuracy.

A consistently accurate fact checker earns a reputation as a reputable fact checker. A reputation built on anything else amounts to salesmanship.

A fact checker that fact checks all the players in the political system might be considered reputable for the wrong reason.