Saturday, October 25th, 2014

Readers speak out about our ruling on Biden, Flint crime stats

The relationship between the size of a police force and the level of crime is one that's been hotly disputed over the years.
The relationship between the size of a police force and the level of crime is one that's been hotly disputed over the years.

Last week, we asked for feedback on our Mostly True rating of a comment by Vice President Joe Biden on crime statistics in Flint, Mich. -- a rating that clashed with how other fact-checking organizations rated similar claims by Biden on this topic.

We received several dozen responses from readers, and many of them offered thoughtful critiques of our work. Since then, we found more definitive evidence that Biden's numbers on rape are wrong. We have re-reported this item and given it a new rating of Half True.

Here is a sampling of readers' thoughts, edited for space.

***

"Congratulations on tackling this question -- it is very important that fact-checking stay objective and not get mired down in egos and blindly defending past positions. You guys are like journalistic scientists -- open to new information and willing to change your minds. Keep providing the explicit explanation of where you get your facts and how you put them in context. I sometimes disagree with your rating based on the article, but all the detail helps me form my own opinions.

"Also, keep a strong emphasis on context. Biden wasn't simply reporting numbers -- he was making inferences and claiming cause-and-effect.  Even if a narrow reading on the numbers says ‘True,’ the context is very important to a final rating. I find your context information very useful.

"Personally, I would downgrade the truth rating on Biden's crime stats. Based on things I've read in the past, the relationship between cops and the crime rate is quite fuzzy and there really are many factors. The conventional wisdom had been that bad economics equals higher violent-crime rates, and that hasn't happened nationwide this recession, so there is evidence that the common wisdom is out-of-date.

"Your transparency is admirable. Keep up the good work"

***

"The data presented by Vice President Biden seems to be full of errors and mis-characterizations.  That right there knocks a couple points off. Second, the conclusion of a singular and direct causal link between law-enforcement staffing and the crime rate is far from clear. At the very least, the effects of an extremely severe economic downturn should be acknowledged. The effects of unemployment on domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse and its related violent crime should be part of the argument, as well as loss of jail space as cities have to trim budgets. I would give him a Mostly False on this."

***

"I really appreciate your passion for fairness and desire for objectivity. This is a very hard thing to find today, and I have been constantly impressed at the consistency I have found.

"As to this ruling, I would recommend not revising it until and unless the city of Flint comes back with numbers that disagree with Biden's. As stated by the FBI, if I as a man were to be raped in Flint and report it, it would not have been recorded in the FBI’s statistics. It is unfortunate that they keep such a narrow definition.

"Ultimately, though, I would argue to the context of fewer police officers as a factor among many and say that taking police officers off the street cannot make a place more safe. We can argue about how less safe it will be, and I found that consideration present in your Mostly True ruling. The ratings may disagree, but I found that yours encapsulates the point succinctly."

***

"The county of Flint has seen a 10 percent decline in population in the past decade. As the population decreases, it is apparent that crime is rising, so if the total numbers of crime is down in 2011 as police are laid off, the percentage of crime per capita could possibly be way up."

***

"I think PolitiFact missed the ball on this one. People make mistakes; it’s why your site exists in the first place. Don’t make excuses. Change the ruling and move on."

***

"Everyone looking at this issue seems to think that FBI numbers are a good measure of ... something.  It could not be further from the truth. Take it easy on judging the rape numbers. See this article. The FBI rape statistics are the problem."

***

"I think your assessment of Biden's original remarks was pretty fair. However, I think the primary purpose of your site should be to help the rest of us determine how credible various political figures are. In this case, the fact that Biden changed his original comments to make his point more forcibly -- by stating ‘facts’ that were clearly false -- is a clear indication that his credibility is very bad.

"I think you should revisit this incident, and make it very clear to your readers that he is inconsistent, and thereby deserves a Pants on Fire."

"P.S. I find your site extremely useful. Are any of you interested in public office? We could sure use some intelligent, honest people!"

(Editor’s note: Thanks for the offer, but we’re happy as journalists.)

***

"If you had separated out the different elements of truth -- factual accuracy, likeliness to mislead -- then the reader would learn more, comparisons among fact-checkers would be more straightforward, and you would get fewer letters.

"If you ask a doctor, ‘Is exercising regularly and smoking cigarettes good for my health?’ you should not expect a single, unhelpful answer like ‘Half-Yes.’ The doctor would rightly separate the elements of the question to give you two useful answers -- Yes, and No, respectively."

***

"Since the purpose of fact-checking is to hold politicians and others accountable for what they say, I think there are two things you can do ‘When fact-checkers disagree.’

"(1) Do what you just did -- show the other rulings and explain the differences, and
"(2) Revise your ruling to include the new information.

"In this case, I think the revised ruling should include the later statements by Biden that clearly show that his statements became more distorted over time.

"I very much appreciate the work that you do.  Please keep up the good work."

***

"There is a lesson to be learned here, or maybe an old one to be revisited: Social science is not ‘science.’ The art of reporting on matters of the social animal cannot arrive at ‘proven’ conclusions, only a reasonable accounting of the facts, sifted through the human mind and poured onto paper, representing a ‘perspective’ of the author.  

"What PolitiFact and other fact-checking organizations do valiantly is attempt to help us not get ‘sold’ on information which is, intended or not, manipulative as opposed to educational. So its fine that occasionally you folks will arrive at different conclusions on something as elusive as ‘truth.’ You are at least (and admirably) trying to get there. With a wholesale capitulation by our political leaders to ‘spin’ rather than educate the public, your efforts are crucial to the survival of democracy."

***

"The most important thing is the process, not the product. By showing, in public, the thought processes and logic involved in arriving at decisions, you treat us with dignity and respect. You also model what I think newspapers and other news sources should be like. This allows the reader to be the ultimate arbiter of where the truth lies.

"Thank for you for your courage, frankly over and over again, in exposing your self to criticism. Now, more than ever, readers need a place were news gatherers try to organize facts and come to conclusions in a truthful, if not neutral, way. Keep up the good work, openness , and willingness to make to honest mistakes."

***

"I worked for nearly two years as a cops reporter at a mid-sized newspaper, and I know how crime statistics can be tremendously insightful one moment and terribly deceptive the next. Murder numbers are solid -- bodies tend not to go unnoticed. But data on sexual crimes, such as rape, are perhaps the most challenging to interpret.

"Even if you could say with certainty that the numbers are accurate, then the question is what drives them up or down. This is far too much of a gray area for Biden to earn a Mostly True. Some cities use fewer cops effectively, while others use many cops ineffectively. Yes, the size of the police force is a variable, but Biden is playing loose with the facts for political effect. Give him a Mostly False."

***

"It might be a good goal for fact-checking organizations to agree in their rulings when checking the identical statement. But there's no reason they should agree when checking different statements! Nor should they try to check the same statements. So long as each organization works honestly, where's the problem? There is none. Flash: Human endeavors will show variation! Two great pianists interpreting ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ will not play it the same way.

"Keep up your good work; it doesn't have to always agree with the others' good work."