From Benghazi to Ferguson and income inequality to student debt, our most popular fact-checks of 2014 reflect some of the top issues to sprout up in the past 12 months. Others, like ever-popular posts debunking viral Internet memes, piqued reader interest for other reasons.
As we say goodbye to 2014, here are the top 10 most-read reports we posted this year.
10. Prior to Benghazi, were there 13 attacks on embassies and 60 deaths under President George W. Bush?
Republicans in 2014 continued to investigate the attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, much to the ire of Democrats, who accused the GOP of politicizing a tragedy. Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., juxtaposed the Republican response against similar occurrences during President George W. Bush’s administration, when he said, "there were 13 attacks on various embassies and consulates around the world. Sixty people died."
Overall, we found Garamendi slightly understated the number of deadly attacks and total fatalities, though it’s noteworthy that most deaths weren’t Americans. Experts said Benghazi is also a very different situation in that a U.S. ambassador was killed, which hadn’t happened since the 1970s. We rated Garamendi’s statement Mostly True.
9. Rumors of third (President) Barack Obama term are satire passed off as truth
Since 2009, fact-checkers have encountered claims that Obama is gearing up for a third term. The idea is completely fabricated. The latest installment came from chain emails passing around a "story" by the faux news site National Report, which cited a fake administration official.
It would take a constitutional amendment to allow Obama the opportunity to run again, which isn’t happening. There is a congressman who has proposed eliminating presidential term limits, but he’s been submitting the legislation for more than a decade to no avail. Pants on Fire!
8. Viral photo of Ferguson protester doesn't withstand close scrutiny
Social media erupted in the wake of several high-profile confrontations between white police officers and unarmed African-Americans. It also spurred hoaxes that were widely shared as truth, including a photo of a black protester holding a handwritten sign that reads, "No mother should have to fear for her son's life every time he robs a store." Our investigation found the photo was doctored. In the original, the sign said, "No mother should have to fear for her son's life every time he leaves home.". Another Pants on Fire.
7. Congress has 11 percent approval ratings but 96 percent incumbent reelection rate, meme says
This is the case of the rare accurate viral meme. We found small differences in the actual percentages, but the point of the meme is solid. Voters hold Congress in low regard, yet they re-elect almost everyone. We rated the claim True.
6. Have there been 74 school shootings since Sandy Hook? A look at a tricky statistic
In June, a school shooting, this time in Oregon, renewed calls for stricter gun laws. Advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety circulated a startling statistic: At least 74 school shootings had occurred since December 2012, when Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
However, the group’s figure is accurate only if you use a broad definition of "school shooting" that includes incidents such as suicides, accidents and spillover from adjacent criminal activity. If you only look at incidents similar to the shootings in Oregon and Connecticut, the figure is much lower. That’s not to downplay those other incidents. However, Everytown was making a specific point that the data did not back up. We rated the statement Mostly False.
5. Did Barack Obama sign a bill to forgive all outstanding student debt? No
For the millions of Americans with college loans, this claim proved too good to be true. The rumor was started by Empire News, which bills itself as a satirical news site (isn’t satire supposed to be funny?), and the Internet ran with it as fact. The fake story came out just as Obama took executive action to allow for student debt payment caps, which helped catalyze its pervasiveness. But it was still rated Pants on Fire.
4. Could a minimum-wage earner in 1978 earn enough in a summer to pay a full year's tuition?
Income inequality was a hot-button issue in 2014 and we frequently fact-checked claims on the topic. One fast-spreading Facebook graphic claimed, "In 1978, a student who worked a minimum-wage summer job could afford to pay a year's full tuition at the 4-year public university of their choice." The data backs up the claim — a minimum wage summer salary in 1978 of $1,378 would have covered the then-average tuition of $688 — but with one important caveat: The university must be an in-state school. Out-of-state rates may well have kicked up the tuition amount beyond a summer’s minimum-wage haul. Still, it was rated Mostly True.
3. Fact-checking Obama's 2014 State of the Union
Whenever a president goes before Congress to deliver a State of the Union address, PolitiFact is there to check the facts. This year, our wrap up story highlighting all of our coverage and fact-checks from the night, including claims about the wage gap and green jobs. The 2015 State of the Union speech is scheduled for Jan. 20. Recently, we launched a Kickstarter campaign to provide live fact-checking and annotation of the 2015 speech and GOP response.
2. Video of Barack Obama speech circulating on the Internet was edited to change his meaning
Did Obama ever say that "ordinary men and women are too small-minded to govern their own affairs" and that individuals should "surrender their rights to an all-powerful sovereign"? No, but a carefully edited video of Obama’s 2014 address in Brussels made it appear as if he did. Obama was actually saying pretty much the opposite, but the deceitful video made its way into chain emails anyway. As it was, we rated it Pants on Fire.
1. Who took more vacation — George W. Bush or Barack Obama?
Ah, presidential vacation time. The gift that keeps on giving. A fact-check of Al Sharpton defending Obama’s vacation made our top 10 last year, too. Conservatives love to hit Obama for his time spent on the golf course while liberals shoot back that Bush vacationed more. Who is right? Our report was the most-read story of 2014.
On Aug. 8, 2014, CBS White House reporter Mark Knoller, the unofficial but widely trusted chronicler of data on presidential travels, tweeted that Obama had taken 19 vacations totaling 125 days so far while in office. Those numbers have risen a bit, but that’s still a good bit fewer than Bush’s 65 combined trips to his Texas ranch and his parents’ home in Kennebunkport, Maine, which totaled 407 days at the same point in his presidency.