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Analysis: The hard truth about fact-checking

Two chairs that will be used by U.S. President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney sit empty during preparations fo
Two chairs that will be used by U.S. President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney sit empty during preparations fo

By Jason Lange

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Fact-checking presidential campaigns has become a kind of sport in recent years, complete with scorecards tallying the competition between ratings of true, false or somewhere in between.

What has been missing - and is likely to stay missing in Tuesday's presidential debate - is suspense. The winner in the ratings game is generally the same: somewhere in between.

The terminology differs from fact-checker to fact-checker. But the reality is that the vast majority of claims fact-checkers put under scrutiny are deemed to be partly true or partly false but rarely completely one or the other.

The triumph of the neither wholly true nor wholly false partly reflects the complexity of the issues. But credit mostly goes to obfuscation by the campaigns.

Theirs is a world of apples-to-oranges comparisons and cherry-picked time frames, enveloped by a fog of competing studies.

As PolitiFact.com and other fact-checkers have noted, for example, the increase in the federal budget deficit cited by the campaigns depends entirely on the starting point for the calculation.

It's bad for President Barack Obama if the starting point for the calculation is fiscal 2008, which ended before Obama took office and is the reference point for the campaign of Republican candidate Mitt Romney.

But it's not quite as bad if the starting point is January 2009, when he actually assumed office.

"There is most often some grain of truth - sometimes very difficult to discern - but the candidates will twist it and distort it," said Brooks Jackson, a veteran journalist who runs FactCheck.org.

When all is said and done, the Romney claim that Obama has "doubled the deficit" may be all the voter can absorb.

The same is true for claim by Obama's campaign that a Medicare reform plan by Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan would cost the elderly more than $6,000 per year.

True or false? PolitiFact.com could only muster a 50-50 judgment.

The problem is this: There are at least four iterations of a "Medicare plan" associated with Ryan. The Obama campaign had the opportunity to cherry-pick one and took it, choosing the version that could be portrayed as the most threatening thanks in part to a study by the Congressional Budget Office.

There was no simple answer, so fact-checkers resorted to long analyses on whether the claim was plausible.

"There is a number (behind the claim) and it's not made out of whole cloth, but it's used in a misleading manner," said Glenn Kessler, a fact-checker at The Washington Post.

The final judgment at PolitiFact.com required 1,200 words including footnotes. At FactCheck.org it was 1,000 words.

That makes them treatises by journalistic standards, unlikely reading for all but the most determined voters.

FOUR PINOCCHIOS

True or false is reserved for the laughable claim or something empirically disprovable.

Romney told crowds in December and February that Americans were the only people in the world to hold their hands over their hearts while their national anthems were played.

Kessler and other fact-checkers found numerous examples to the contrary.

And it was easy to establish that Obama was not in New York City the same day as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a claim that Ryan made in an effort to show that Obama snubbed the Israeli leader by not meeting him there.

To make things easier for readers, Kessler grades claims on a scale of one-to-four Pinocchios. He said that both Obama and Romney were averaging just above two Pinocchios, the rating for claims marked by "significant omissions and/or exaggerations" but not necessarily factually erroneous.

FactCheck.org uses a graphic "truth-o-meter."

Neither can capture the complexity of such questions as whether Romney's tax plan is "mathematically impossible," as the Obama campaign says, citing a study.

While fact-checking is undoubtedly good for democracy, arguments in the press over unsupported or outlandish claims tend to spread them, not debunk them, as research by Dartmouth College scholar Brendan Nyhan, among others, has demonstrated.

"People get hung up on the true/false thing," said Nyhan, a former fact-checker himself. "It gets away from the core issue, which is whether something is a responsible claim to make in public life or not."

(Reporting by Jason Lange and Fred Barbash. Editing by Fred Barbash and Xavier Briand)

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