PANTS ON FIRE: PolitiFact Florida Skews Coverage Against GOP, in Favor of Democrats

PolitiFact Florida ratings of the truthfulness of statements by politicians are heavily skewed against Republicans and toward Democrats according to an extensive Media Trackers analysis of 665 separate rulings issued by the Florida fact-checking group. Republican statements were eleven times more likely to end up on the group’s “Pants on Fire” list than those made by Democrats, with a total of 22 Republican claims showing up on the list compared to only two Democratic claims.

PolitiFact Florida’s “Pants on Fire” list also included more claims from independents – two from former Gov. Charlie Crist and one from professional baseball player Evan Longoria – than it did from Democrats.

The “Truth-O-Meter” scorecard, which PolitiFact describes as “a scorecard separating fact from fiction,” abandons the standard binary choice of true versus false and includes six different degrees of truthfulness: Pants on Fire, False, Mostly False, Half True, Mostly True, and True.

Politifact Florida includes on its website a list of 665 separate rulings it issued on various political claims as of August 29, 2012. A total of 554 rulings were issued on statements made by individuals, of which 342 were related to clearly identifiable Republicans, 154 to clearly identifiable Democrats, and 58 to individuals without a clear party affiliation or inclination.

A data-driven analysis of PolitiFact Florida’s 554 rulings on statements made by individuals appears to show a clear bias against Republicans and in favor of Democrats. As the truthfulness of a statement increases, so does the percentage of Democratic claims included in PolitiFact Florida’s rating. For example, as shown in the table below, Democratic claims comprise only 7 percent of all “Pants on Fire Rulings.” In contrast, Republican statements – 22 of them – comprise more than 80 percent of all “Pants on Fire rulings. Even statements from individuals not clearly affiliated with any political party outnumber Democratic claims in PolitiFact Florida’s “Pants on Fire” category.

For the next category, False, the percentage of Republican statements included drops to 69 percent, while the Democratic percentage increases to 23 percent. The trend continues through nearly every category. The category reserved for the most truthful statements, True, contains a higher percentage of Democratic claims (35 percent) and a lower percentage of Republican claims (53 percent) than every other “Truth-O-Meter” category.”

This dynamic appears to be a textbook example of what statisticians call “selection bias,” an instance in which a study sample – in PolitiFact’s case, the statements it chooses to judge – is neither random nor normally distributed and as a result does not accurately reflect the true population of data. It is also sometimes referred to as the “spotlight fallacy.”  For example, a doctor who treats sick patients all day long may be tempted to infer that the entire population is chronically ill since his sample includes a disproportionate number of sick people.

For example, only two Democratic claims out of a total of 27 made by individuals received a “Pants on Fire” ruling from PolitiFact Florida, compared to 22 rulings against Republican claims. “Pants on Fire” rulings against statements by individuals not clearly affiliated with a political party also outnumbered those made by Democrats. While no journalistic organization has the resources to review every claim made by every single politician, it strains credulity to believe that a mere two claims made by hundreds of Democratic politicians in Florida were blatantly false.

PolitiFact Florida spent 1,012 words critiquing a “Pants on Fire” video featuring Tampa Bay Devil Rays third baseman Evan Longoria. Longoria does not appear to have any history or interest in Florida politics. In contrast, PolitiFact Florida spent only 538 words on a “Pants on Fire” ruling against Charlie Justice, a Democratic state senator and one of only two Democrats to receive a “Pants on Fire” distinction from PolitiFact Florida.

The fact-checking group also chose to not even review a statement made on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives by former Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson that “Republicans want you to die quickly.” However, PolitiFact Florida did rate as “Mostly False” a commercial from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that featured Grayson’s statement.

Democrats are also more likely to receive a positive “Truth-O-Meter” rating from PolitiFact Florida than are Republicans. A positive rating is defined as “Half True,” “Mostly True,” or “True.” A negative rating is defined as “Pants on Fire,” “False,” or “Mostly False.”  Of the 154 ratings issued on statements made by Democrats, 66 percent were positive. For Republican statements, 56 percent of the ratings were positive, while 64 percent of the 58 ratings issued on statements by individuals without a clear political affiliation were positive (Charlie Crist was responsible for 38 of those ratings). Conversely, Republican claims were more likely to receive negative rulings than those of Democrats or independents.

Media Trackers reached out to Bill Adair, PolitiFact founder and Tampa Bay Times Washington Bureau Chief, for comment but was unable to reach him prior to publication.

This piece is cross-posted at Media Trackers Florida:  http://florida.mediatrackers.org/2012/08/30/pants-on-fire-politifact-florida-rulings-show-clear-bias-in-favor-of-democrats-against-republicans/.