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Battling Fake News: 100 Days and PolitiFact Embark on Student-led Partnership

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In an age of misinformation, political division and, dare we say, fake news, it seems impossible to know what is true and what isn’t. We live in a 24-hour news cycle where the flow of information never stops and it seems as if the latest outlandish thing we heard can’t possibly be outdone. And then it is.

The divides in this country have polarized issues we didn’t know could or should be polarized. That polarization has only grown worse in an environment dominated by social media – an environment dependent on evoking emotional responses from its users. With fake news sites running rampant spreading false information and an abundance of stories written to incite anger among one side of the aisle or the other, the truth is more important than ever.  

Lou Jacobson, PolitiFact Senior Correspondent, speaks to WVU journalism students before they fact-check Donald Trump’s Charleston, WV, rally Aug. 21, 2018. Photo: David Smith, 100 Days in Appalachia

That is why we at 100 Days in Appalachia have partnered with PolitiFact to help train not only us, but also future journalists at West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media, how to properly fact-check politicians and hold them accountable at all levels of government.

PolitiFact is a fact-checking website born out of a project in 2007 at the Tampa Bay Times. Its staff of writers and editors have dedicated themselves to holding elected officials accountable for what they say. The site and the fact-checkers behind it hold independence, transparency and fairness above all else and work to serve citizens so they can make informed decisions as active participants of a democracy.

“There is so much misinformation going around these days, particularly on the internet. In our political culture there is a long-standing lack of being entirely truthful,” said Lou Jacobson, senior correspondent at PolitiFact. “People have been very cynical about politicians, and politicians assume people won’t check what they say. We want to hold them accountable.”

Jacobson will act as the liaison between PolitiFact and the Reed College of Media, working with a class of student journalists to train them to fact-check West Virginia politicians and government officials, from the governor to the state political parties and beyond. The students will keep an eye on West Virginia’s political players, research and investigate their claims and, depending on their findings, recommend a ruling of True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, False or Pants on Fire, in line with PolitiFact’s standards. Once the stories are approved by the editors at PolitiFact, the fact-checks will be published on PolitiFact’s site and our own.

“I like idea of teaching students, the next generation. Young people – and older people too – in this age of social media have gone forth without a really good B.S. detector. Sometimes it requires someone to say ‘this is crazy, this is wrong,’” Jacobson said.

WVU journalism students watch Donald Trump’s Charleston, WV, rally on Aug. 21. Photo: David Smith, 100 Days in Appalachia

The class with which Jacobson will be working focuses on copy editing and curation and is instructed by Dr. Bob Britten, a journalism professor in the Reed College of Media. Britten has been a part of other experimental courses, including the Reed College of Media’s first-ever class on media literacy.

“This PolitiFact partnership is great because we have this award-winning fact-checking site at a time when getting it right is on everyone’s mind. Are we telling the truth, are politicians telling the truth and can we back up claims with real information?” Dr. Britten said. “Not only is it real-world experience [for students], it’s relevant experience that shows that not only can we report, but it shows we’re holding those in power accountable for what they say.” 

We at 100 Days in Appalachia believe the partnership will instill a healthy sense of skepticism and inquiry into current and future journalists, as well as provide the public with a way to know just how honest their elected officials are. Now more than ever, the world needs the truth and needs to understand how important the truth is to a functioning democracy. 

Students in the Reed College of Media have already published a few fact-checks. Check out West Virginia GOP Largely Accurate About Food Stamp Decline and West Virginia GOP Tweet Correct About Job Growth.

Fact Check

Fact-check: Is Joe Manchin the Only Senator to Consistently Vote Against the Nuclear Option?

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In this Jan. 22, 2018, file photo, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., talks with a staffer on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photo: AP Photo/File

For decades, majority leaders in the U.S. Senate have threatened to use the “nuclear option” to change senators’ ability to filibuster, a maneuver that blocks bills from coming to a vote unless a supermajority of the chamber votes to proceed.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is one member of the body who has fought to protect the status quo.

In a recent tweet, Manchin said, “I was the only member of the Senate – Republican or Democrat – who has consistently voted against efforts to use the so called ‘nuclear option’ to change the rules of the Senate. This move is a betrayal of the people we represent.”

We wondered whether Manchin was right that he had a uniquely consistent record on such votes. So we reached out to two experts in Senate procedure to see whether Manchin’s statement was accurate. (Manchin’s office did not respond to an inquiry.)

What is the nuclear option?

First, some background on the nuclear option.

As we’ve previously noted, there is a legend of uncertain veracity that says George Washington and Thomas Jefferson came to agree that the Senate should serve as a “saucer” to the House’s “tea cup” — a vessel for cooling the passions emanating from the House.

Whether the specifics of the tale hold up, the idea that the Senate is the slower, more cautious half of Congress has been the chamber’s reputation throughout its history. The Constitution delegates internal rule-setting to the Senate itself, and for much of its history, the chamber — unlike the House — did not implement any mechanism to maneuver around a member who was determined enough to block action through a filibuster.

In 1917, the Senate voted to empower a supermajority of two-thirds to cut off a filibuster and move on to other business by invoking a motion known as “cloture.” (Since the Senate had 96 members then, that meant 64 were needed to invoke cloture if all members were voting.) Then, in 1975, the Senate voted to lower the supermajority to its current number, 60 out of 100 members.

Still, 60 votes is a significant hurdle for a chamber that has not often had one party win that many seats. In recent years, the two parties have become more polarized, and more willing to filibuster, even on matters that had previously been treated as routine. That has put pressure on Senate leaders to get rid of the longstanding supermajority hurdle or else face gridlock — especially for such high-stakes topics as nominations.

Detractors have warned that such important matters were better dealt with using the higher degree of consensus conveyed through a 60-vote supermajority. But there is one tool available to a Senate leader willing to buck the chamber’s long standing tradition: the nuclear option.

The mechanics of the nuclear option (which has nothing to do with anything literally nuclear) are complex even by the standards of parliamentary maneuvers, requiring a precise series of carefully choreographed steps. Readers brave enough to tackle the details can refer to multi-page explanations in these two reports by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

The gist, though, is that the majority party would move to change the supermajority rule through a series of votes that require only a simple majority.

Recent nuclear votes

Gregory Koger, a University of Miami political scientist, cited four key votes for the nuclear option. One came in 2013, when the Democrats were in control, one came in 2017, when Republicans were in control, and the final one came in 2019, when the Republicans were still in control.

In 2013, the Democratic leadership used the nuclear option to get rid of the filibuster for all nominations except Supreme Court appointments. Manchin voted against his own party, to keep the status quo.

In 2017, Republicans leaders called a vote to eliminate the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations. Here, Manchin cast a vote to maintain the status quo, siding with Democrats against the Republican majority seeking to go nuclear.

Then, in 2019, Republican leaders offered two relevant votes. While they weren’t specifically about filibusters, they addressed delaying tactics that can advantage the minority.

One vote would shorten the debate time after cloture from 30 hours to 2 hours for district judges. The second would do the same for non-Cabinet executive appointments.

In both cases, Manchin voted to maintain the status quo.

In 2013, two fellow Democratic senators voted with Manchin and against their party’s leadership — then-Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. Neither remains in the chamber.

And two Republicans who voted with Democrats in the 2019 votes had stuck with their own party in the 2017 vote, meaning that their voting record wasn’t “consistent” with the status quo in all cases.

Our ruling

Manchin said, “I was the only member of the Senate – Republican or Democrat – who has consistently voted against efforts to use the so called ‘nuclear option’ to change the rules of the Senate.”

Experts in Senate procedure tell PolitiFact that Manchin is correct, having voted in favor of the status quo — and against “nuclear option” efforts — in each of the four relevant votes between 2013 and 2019.

We rate this statement True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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Fact Check

Fact-check: Have Exports from West Virginia Risen Faster than the U.S. as a Whole?

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Heavy equipment and trucks move coal in the Sun Coal Co. coal yard along the Kanawha River in Dickenson, W.Va., on Jan. 19, 2018. Photo: AP

Have West Virginia exports been on fire recently? A tweet by the West Virginia Republican Party suggests so.

In an April 2 tweet, the state party said, “West Virginia’s exports increased for the second year in a row in 2018, reaching $8.1 billion. Additionally, West Virginia’s export growth rate was 14.2%, nearly double the national average of 7.6%.”

Did West Virginia really outpace the national average of export growth rates?

The tweet linked to a March 17 article in WVNews. In turn, the article cites a March 15 news release by the West Virginia Department of Commerce that reported data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Caitlin Ashley-Lizarraga, an international trade specialist at the West Virginia Department of Commerce, pointed us to detailed Census Bureau data collected by a private-sector subscription database, the Global Trade Atlas.

The table shows that West Virginia did indeed export $8.1 billion to the rest of the world in 2018, and that represented a 14.2% increase over the export total for 2017.

The increase for the nation as a whole was a little over half that — 7.6%.

We were able to replicate this data using the Census Bureau’s own USA Trade Onlinedata portal.

While the export growth in West Virginia was strong between 2017 and 2018, it’s worth noting that this expansion came from a small base.

In fact, West Virginia ranks thirteenth from the bottom in total exports for 2018. The states ranking below West Virginia are Arkansas, Delaware, Idaho, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming.

Our ruling

The West Virginia Republican Party tweeted, “West Virginia’s exports increased for the second year in a row in 2018, reaching $8.1 billion. Additionally, West Virginia’s export growth rate was 14.2%, nearly double the national average of 7.6%.”

The data, which we verified with a U.S. Census Bureau database, supports what the tweet said. We rate the statement True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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Fact Check

Fact-check: Does West Virginia Trail its Neighbors in STEM Graduates?

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Is West Virginia trailing its neighbors in science, technology, engineering and math in higher education? West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee said so during his State of the University address on March 19.

“Our state has fewer science, technology, engineering and math graduates than any neighboring state,” Gee said.

We decided to see if Gee was correct. We defined a “neighboring state” as one that shares a border with West Virginia: Maryland, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

To support his assertion, Gee’s office referred us to a website run by a corporate-location consulting firm called the Site Selection Group. The site provides statistics for STEM degrees conferred in 2016.

Using raw numbers of graduates, Gee is correct: West Virginia conferred 4,912 STEM degrees, which is smaller than the neighboring five states. The second-smallest was Kentucky, with 8,252 degrees.

However, looking just at raw numbers of graduates is misleading because West Virginia has a smaller population than any of the other states. To cancel out the effect of population, we also looked at the percentage of all degrees conferred in the state that were for STEM fields.

On this measure, West Virginia ranks last among nearby states, too, though the comparison is closer. (We used data from the federal Department of Education that combines associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctorates conferred in each state for 2015-2016.)

We found that 16 percent of West Virginia’s degrees came in STEM fields, close to — but behind — Virginia at 17 percent and Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania at 18 percent. Maryland was the clear leader with 23 percent.

Courtesy: PolitiFact

Our ruling

Gee said, “Our state has fewer science, technology, engineering, and math graduates than any neighboring state.” He’s right both on the raw numbers and as a percentage of all degrees granted, though measuring by percentage, it’s a pretty close competition.

We rate the statement True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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