This completes the three-part series using PolitiFact truth ratings to score the credibility of politicians and pundits. Part one found voters preferred the more truthful candidate in Senate races. Part two calculated the combined accuracy of claims by presidents and their staffs.
PolitiFact has been fighting fake news since 2007. As of September 2020, they’ve checked the accuracy of 18,150 claims made by 4,217 persons and organizations. With their permission, I examined all their ratings to find who lies and who tells the truth.
PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter has six levels: True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, False, and the dreaded Pants-on-Fire!. For each PolitiFact-checked source, I calculated a score between 0 and 1 (see methodology), based on the veracity of their claims:
- means all the statements were True.
- means all the statements were False.
My analysis updates one I did for RJI in 2017. It uses only data from people and organizations with four or more fact-checks: enough to establish a truth/lie trend. The dataset (see the spreadsheet) has 709 sources with a total of 13,442 checks. The charts below compare them as individuals and in groups.
Funny because it’s true
Comedians were the most truthful group in 2017 and remain so today, with an average score of .64. (John Oliver scored .80, Stephen Colbert .75, Doonesbury .67, Bill Maher .53, and Jon Stewart .45.) Print journalists were second, averaging .58, slipping from their 2017 score of .63.
|Media: TV News||34||329||0.42|
|Media: Talk Radio||6||68||0.15|
|Sources are either a person or organization with 4+ checks.|
The average score for all sources is also down, from .50 to .44. Democrats (.52) still lead Republicans (.4o). As a group, politicians (.47), pundits (.43), women (.47), and men (.45) were all about equally veracity challenged.
Other group averages: People (.46) were more accurate than organizations (.31). Unions (.42) beat out advocacy groups (.39), party committees (.38), and PACs (.33). TV news did okay (.42). Talk radio (.15) not so much.
So, if hearing truth is your goal: Heed comedians. Tune out talk radio. Ignore any utterance by parties, PACS, and advocacy orgs (progressive and conservative). Pay absolutely no attention to social media (.05), which scored abysmally: Tweets averaged 0.13. Facebook and Instagram posts were both .09. Viral-images, blog-postings, chain messages/emails, and YouTube videos were all below .02.
Assume. Everything. On Social Media. Is Wrong. Based on PolitiFact, it usually is.
Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight.Proverbs 12:22
Relative media mendacity
The next table lists news outlets with two or more PolitiFact-checked people. New York Times writers topped the pack with a .68 score, the average of David Brooks (.80), Paul Krugman (.70), Nicholas Kristof (.70), and Gail Collins (.53). HBO (.66) was second, with comics John Oliver (.80) and Bill Maher (.53).
|New York Times||4||36||0.68|
|Outlets with 2+ PolitiFact-checked people (4+ claims each). Score is their average.|
Kudos to CNN’s Jake Tapper and NBC/MSNBC’s Chuck Todd, the highest-scoring broadcast journalists, both at 0.75. Unfortunately, Todd’s MSNBC colleagues dragged his network down into nearly last place.
The table below lists the PolitiFact score of 150 well-known pols and pundits, people either in the news or in the news biz whose claims have been checked 4+ times by PolitiFact (spreadsheet).
|George W. Bush||GOP||TX||4||0.56|
|Bill de Blasio||Dem||NY||6||0.54|
|Sarah Huckabee Sanders||GOP||AK||6||0.11|
|Donald Trump Jr.||GOP||NY||10||0.07|
|Jerome R. Corsi||Media||4||-0.03|
|Well-known political people with 4+ checks. |
Burden of proof: People who make factual claims are accountable for their words and should be able to provide evidence to back them up. We will try to verify their statements, but we believe the burden of proof is on the person making the statement.Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter
The above results are from PolitiFact data gathered at the end of September 2020. I used only data for those with four or more checks (enough truth ratings to show a pattern). This subset of PolitiFact data has 709 people or organizations with a total of 13,442 rulings (public spreadsheet).
Each person’s score is calculated by assigning a number value to each rating level, listed in the table below, then averaging all their PolitiFact rulings.
|True||The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.||1.00|
|Mostly True||The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.||0.75|
|Half True||The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.||0.50|
|Mostly False||The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.||0.25|
|False||The statement is not accurate.||0.00|
|Pants on Fire||The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.||-0.10|
|The negative “Pants” number makes below-zero scores possible.|
Group scores are the average of the scores of all the people in the group (not the average of all the individual rulings of the people in the group). In the tables, a “PAC” designation includes “Super PAC” 501(c)(4) organizations, though technically not PACs. “Pundits” are those in the media and listed at PunditFact.
Media people are associated with the outlet they worked at when most of their claims were checked. So Stephen Colbert is grouped with CBS (not Comedy Central) and Megyn Kelly as Fox News (though she later moved to NBC).
This same criterion applies to people with dual roles: talk radio and TV news, politician and pundit. I assigned them the role in which they made the plurality of their PolitiFact-checked statements. Because of this, for example, Joe Scarborough is listed as part of MSNBC (not as a former congressman) while David Axelrod is listed as a politician (not as his current position with CNN). “Adv” in the Group column identifies a member of an advocacy group, like the NRA or Planned Parenthood.
Finally, I chose PolitiFact because I consider their checks thorough, nonpartisan, and among the best in the business. If you want to keep politics and facts together, please support PolitiFact (a project of the nonprofit Poynter Institute) with a tax-deductible contribution or membership.
Thanks to Josef Verbanac and Claire Golding for editing, and to Aaron Sharockman for Politifact permission. The top image is from a William Jennings Bryan campaign poster, “Shall the People Rule?” (circa 1900), at the Library of Congress.