Saturday, August 6, 2016

What the media gets totally wrong about truth and consequences

Last Monday I posted an analysis of the statements made by the two presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton (Democrat) and Donald Trump (Republican). I relied on the data provided by the nonpartisan fact-checking site, politifact.com. They list the frequencies of statements made by individuals and organizations that are rated as True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, False, Pants on Fire. In my post I listed the frequencies of such ratings for Hillary Clinton and the frequencies for Donald Trump. I summarized the data this way: 70% of Trump's statements are false but 71% of Clinton's statements are true. The chance of that lopsided result being an accident is for practical purposes zero.

Moreover, additional analyses by Charlie Barrel, show that of the top 10 liars in the Politifact data, all are Republicans and Trump is #3; of the top 10 truth-tellers, 8 are Democrats and Clinton is #8. Again, it is highly unlikely that you would get such a lopsided result by accident.

So, the evidence is in: Republicans, and especially their chosen candidate for president, are not just liars but Yuge liars. Democrats, among them Hillary Clinton, lie but far less often than they tell the truth.

You already know all that, right? Because you read my post last Monday. Here is what is new.

Yesterday morning our local TV channel, KGUN9, reported on statements made by the two candidates. Clinton has claimed that her statements were supported by the FBI. Politifact quotes her.

Says, regarding the presence of classified information in her email, FBI Director James "Comey said my answers were truthful, and what I've said is consistent with what I have told the American people."

(She has since qualified her claim.)

And Politifact rated her claim as Pants on Fire.

Apparently attempting to achieve some balanced reporting, KGUN9 followed with a report on Trump's claim about the conflict between the scheduled presidential debates and the NFL football schedule. Quoting Trump:

As usual, Hillary & the Dems are trying to rig the debates so 2 are up against major NFL games.

Politifact rated that claim as Pants on Fire also. The debate schedule was set by a bipartisan committee months before NFL published its schedule.

Here is the thing. From the KGUN9 reporting by itself, one lie from one candidate and one from the other, one could draw two inferences. First, most, if not all, politicians make false statements at least some of the time. Second, these two candidates are equally guilty of making false statements; that is, the probability of making a false statement is 0.50 for each candidate.

From every thing I've told you about the Politifact data, we should conclude that the first inference is warranted. Indeed, most politicians, by intention or accident, make false statements.

But from everything I've told you about the data, the second inference is demonstrably false.

So what is the problem with KGUN9's reporting? They have cherry-picked two observations, one for each candidate and thus have mislead the audience about the actual probabilities of true vs. false statements. The actual probabilities of making true vs. false statements were not 0.5 for each candidate but 0.70 FALSE for Trump and 0.71 TRUE for Clinton.

In the literatures of judgement and decision making and behavioral economics what KGUN9 did was fall prey to the availability heuristic. They reported just a couple of instances which were misleading about the actual distributions of true and false statements for the candidates. Those instances were especially available because they were current in the news. (For more on the availability heuristic, see, e.g, this entry from behavioralfinance.net which cites the Nobel-prize-winning research of the psychologist Daniel Kahneman.)

I have picked on KGUN9 because their reporting was itself, ironically, more available to me yesterday morning than reporting by other media entities. In my experience, the reporting by the news media generally exhibits attempts to be "balanced" but in actuality that balance creates false equivalences between candidates and among positions on issues.

These two candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, are not equivalent when it comes to truth-telling. One is the much bigger liar, indeed among the biggest liars in the Republican campaign, and that one candidate is Donald Trump.

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