Study: PolitiFact Rates GOP As Biggest Liar

September 21, 2012

Press Release
September 21, 2012
Contact: Katy Davis

Group Rates Democrats More Truthful in Campaign 2012

The media fact-checking organization PolitiFact.com rates statements by Mitt Romney and other Republicans as false twice as often as statements by President Obama and other Democrats, according to a new study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) at George Mason University and Chapman University.

This analysis of PolitiFact.com is the first release from an ongoing study of fact-checking organizations, from July 1 to Election Day on November 6, 2012. Future releases will address The Fact Checker (Washington Post), and FactCheck.org (Annenberg Public Policy Center). We tabulate the ratings by fact-checking organizations but take no position on their accuracy.

The study examined 98 election-related statements by the presidential candidates, their surrogates, and campaign ads fact-checked by PolitiFact.com from June 1 to September 11. Major findings:

PolitiFact checked the assertions of Democrats slightly more often than those of Republicans (54% vs. 46% of all statements).

However, PolitiFact rated Democratic statements as “mostly true” or “entirely true” about twice as often as Republican statements — 42% true ratings for Democrats vs. 20% for Republicans.

Conversely, statements by Republicans were rated as entirely false about twice as often as Democratic statements – 29% false ratings for GOP statements vs. 15% false ratings for Democrats. (This includes categories labeled “false” and “pants on fire.”)

The same pattern holds for statements made directly by the presidential candidates and their campaigns. A majority of the Obama campaign’s statements (55%) were rated as true or mostly true, compared to one out of four statements (26%) by the Romney campaign.

The difference is even greater at the other end of the spectrum, where 26% of the Romney campaign’s statements were rated as either false or “pants on fire,” compared to only 5% of the Obama campaign’s statements.

Fact Check Study Methods

Fact-check Sites. Researchers at CMPA/George Mason University and Chapman University are examining the conclusions of three leading fact-checking organizations from June 1 to Election Day on November 6, 2012: PolitiFact.com (Tampa Bay Times), The Fact Checker (Washington Post), and FactCheck.org (Annenberg Public Policy Center). Our first report is on PolitiFact.

PolitiFact Rating System. PolitiFact uses what it calls a “Truth-o-Meter” to rate messages along a truth/falsity spectrum that includes six categories:

True: The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.

Mostly True: The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.

Half True: The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.

Mostly False: The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.

False: The statement is not accurate.

Pants on Fire!: The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.

Categories. Messages were categorized as follows: Information collected for each entry included the site on which the message was evaluated; the date of the relevant column; whether the person or organization producing the statement was the candidate himself, a surrogate, or a PAC (see explanations of each category below); and the rating given by the fact-check site, if any.

Coding of candidates, surrogates, and PACS. Statements by the presidential candidates (Barack Obama and Mitt Romney) themselves, their respective campaigns, ads released by the campaigns, or statements released by one of the conventions on behalf of the candidate were all treated as statements attributed to that candidate.

Campaign surrogates include other politicians of the same party, spokespeople for the campaigns who are quoted by name, when it is not clear whether they are speaking for the candidate or for themselves, and speakers at the Republican and Democratic conventions.

The third group includes Democratic- and Republican-leaning PACs that produce ads in support of the candidates.

Coding of Individual Statements. Sometimes columns contain multiple statements, whether by one person or several people. (This occurred most often in columns evaluating statements made during the party conventions.) If, for example, Mitt Romney or Barack Obama is credited with several statements on different topics (e.g., Medicare and taxes), each would be given a separate entry.

If one of the candidates made, within the context of a single speech, an argument about one topic, any statements about that topic would be coded as a unit. (This is usually the way the major fact-checking sites separate out the statements of speakers.)

If a single column contains, say, six statements by a candidate on different issues, as well as four statements by individual surrogates, that column would receive ten entries. Every effort was made to respect the breakdown of individual topics as evaluated by the fact-check websites themselves.

Washington Post Fact-Checker Methods

In a posting titled, “About the Fact Checker,” Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler explains the categories of his Pinocchio rating system as follows:

One Pinocchio – Some shading of the facts. Selective telling of the truth. Some omissions and exaggerations, but no outright falsehoods.

Two Pinocchios – Significant omissions and/or exaggerations. Some factual error may be involved but not necessarily. A politician can create a false, misleading impression by playing with words and using legalistic language that means little to ordinary people.

Three Pinocchios – Significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions.

Four Pinocchios – Whoppers.

The Geppetto Checkmark – Statements and claims that contain “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” will be recognized with our prized Geppetto checkmark. (N.b. CMPA treats this rating as equivalent to zero Pinocchios.)

The Center for Media and Public Affairs is a non-profit, non-partisan research organization, which is affiliated with George Mason University. It has monitored every presidential election and every new administration since 1988 using the same methodology. For CMPA findings on the Obama administration see: https://cmpa.gmu.edu/studies_political_obama.html

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