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Accuracy matters: Three items that needed fact checks

August 19, 2010 - 6:04 pm

Recently, KPBS reporter Joanne Faryon posted a comment on Twitter that made us snicker:

caller on @KPBS makes good point – do we ask whether its true before we report?

The answer is obvious: Yes. If you have to ask whether something is true, you should probably check into it before spreading it. Duh. Tee-hee-hee. Silly broadcaster.

Faryon clarified the intent of her question in several follow-up tweets.  Her responses were 140-character bursts, which I tried, but failed to assemble into a single coherent quote. Here’s the heart of it:

Faryon pointed out that politicians spend a lot of time making claims.  They do it in televised speeches.  They do it in live interviews. They do it in press releases.  And we publish them immediately.  She wanted to know: At what point is it appropriate to quote a public figure without performing a definitive fact check? Does it matter that a fact check could take weeks to complete and the point could be moot by the time the reporter comes to a conclusion?

(Fair use: satire)

Do you report it immediately, then do the due diligence? Faryon said (de-Twitterized by me):

Since when are “fact check” features or blogs something special? It used to be part of everyday journalism.

That’s a great question and a sideways jab at Voice of San Diego’s regular fact check blog, which double checks statements made publicly by officials–even when those statements appear unqualified in the online pub’s own stories.

I don’t have an answer.  I haven’t been around long enough to know what reporters did before Google.  Perhaps, by necessity, we give our sources, particularly officials, the benefit of the doubt in the short game and then, when appropriate, go full throttle over the long haul.  Also, the Fact Check blog is one of the best parts of VOSD.

I owe Faryon an apology for my snideness, because this week I found myself guilty. This blog post will serve as that “fact check” feature for three stories; two are my own and one is in reaction to a story I wrote.  I hope I don’t owe VOSD royalties.

Quoting the Duke

In my recent story about Randall “Duke” Cunningham and his new found mission in the prison reform, I let the Congressman-turned-inmate make a few claims about the US justice system.  I did fact-check his figures about US Attorney success rates and found them only slightly off. I didn’t look into a few other claims and as a result, Aaron Lowe, who keeps The Lowe Down blog for Chicago Now called out Cunningham.

The USA has more prisoners than any other nation, including Russia & China.

Of this claim, Lowe said,  it is “hard for me to believe.” Actually, Cunningham has this one right. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the US was #1 with more than 2 million people incarcerated.

Lowe also said Cunningham was “pulling figures out of thin air” with this claim:

Millions of prisoners but 4x that in families are harmed [by the  US justice system]

OK,  after 15 minutes of research, I can’t verify this one. I’ll cut Cunningham some slack: It’s not as if they’ve got the Google in federal prison camps. Maybe that’s not the  the right thing for me to do, but, as Lowe points out, it’s not an implausible estimate.

Less than meticulous

I’d also like to correct a claim made by Michaelene Fredenburg in this week’s story about how county funds are being used to sponsor her religious organization.  In defending Life Perspectives, which uses the money to host a Life Walk fundraiser to provide religious educational materials to private schools, she says:

Life Perspectives has meticulously fulfilled all the requirements surrounding the receipt of these grants as set forth by the County of San Diego.

This is false. As of this writing, her group is advertising County Supervisor Bill Horn–who championed the grant–as a sponsor on its web site. This is not consistent with the county policy for attribution, which require specific  language making clear that these are public dollars. We covered this in a previous story, explaining how Horn is set to receive a substantial amount of taxpayer-subsidized free advertising in the days before the November election.

U-T  oopsy

On the subject of county grants, I’d like to correct something said in a San Diego Union-Tribune story yesterday. The Century Club of San Diego, which runs the Farmers Insurance Open golf tournament,  applied for a county grant in order to advertise exclusively with the U-T and publish a special spectator’s guide to be distributed exclusively to the newspaper’s readers. The U-T had previously called these grants wasteful and advocated for their elimination. We pointed out the irony. The U-T responded with its own article.

From the U-T story:

Drew Schlosberg, community and public relations director for the newspaper, said, “We don’t find the Union-Tribune’s position hypocritical. Once the money is provided to an organization, it is up to the organization to use the funds as it sees fit.”

This is false. The group does not have the discretion to spend the money “as it sees fit.” As County Counsel John Sansone told us:

[T]he County’s policy with respect to any Neighborhood Reinvestment Grant is that if an organization spends the funds on items that are different from what the Grant Contract specifies, the organization will be required to reimburse the County.

The Century Club’s grant application detailed exactly how the money would be spent: With the U-T and only the U-T. The county would have to amend the contract for the Century Club to spend the money any other way.

Writer’s note: A few turns of phrase have been tweaked for clarity in this story (mostly because I don’t want Rachel Laing to give me shit).

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