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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: Does West Virginia have the Nation’s Fourth-worst Poverty Rate?

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This March 15, 2018 photo shows Moundsville, W.Va., from a nearby farm. Photo: Paul Vernon/AP Photo

In a Nov. 8 op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Democratic state Sen. Mike Romano expressed concern about the state of the West Virginia economy.

“Our poverty rate, which has not declined since the Great Recession, was 19.1 percent, the fourth-highest in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau,” Romano wrote.

Are Romano’s statistics about West Virginia poverty accurate? We took a closer look.

We turned to official U.S. Census Bureau data for poverty by state and looked at 2017, the most recent year for which data was available. While there are two main Census Bureau sources for poverty statistics — the Current Population Survey and the American Community Survey — experts we consulted with agreed that the American Community Survey data was better for a statewide statistic because it has a much larger sample size.

Romano was correct that West Virginia had the fourth-highest poverty rate of any state in 2017, at 19.1 percent.

Here are the five states with the highest poverty rates that year:

1. Mississippi: 19.8 percent

2. Louisiana: 19.7 percent

3. New Mexico: 19.7 percent

4. West Virginia: 19.1 percent

5. Kentucky: 17.2 percentOur ruling

Romano said the poverty rate in West Virginia “was 19.1 percent, the fourth-highest in the country.”

He’s right on both counts, so we rate his statement True.

This story was originally published by PolitiFact.

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Fact Check

Fact-check: Have Median Incomes in West Virginia Not Risen in a Decade?

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Minden, West Virginia. Photo: Brittany Patterson/ WVPB

In a Nov. 8 op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Democratic state Sen. Mike Romano offered a litany of troubling statistics about West Virginia’s economy and urged the creation of “a real economic comeback” in West Virginia.

One of Romano’s statistics was that, “adjusting for inflation, West Virginia’s median household income has not grown in a decade.”

We fact-checked two other statements from his op-ed that turned out to be True.

Is the latest one on stagnant income correct? We turned to official federal data from the Census Bureau to find out.

That data shows that in 2007, the inflation-adjusted median household income in West Virginia was $49,885 — the culmination of a decade and a half of consistent gains above the rate of inflation.

But one decade later, the 2007 figure remains the state’s highest median income level since the statistic was first recorded in 1984. Over that decade, the median income fell by 9 percent when factoring in inflation. (Data for 2018 is not available yet.)

The nation as a whole has seen some income stagnation since 1999, but nothing as severe as West Virginia experienced. Nationally, median incomes have risen every year since 2014 and hit an all-time high in 2017.

Comparing the specific years Romano used — 2007 to 2017 — the national figure rose by 3 percent.

Our ruling

Romano wrote that “adjusting for inflation, West Virginia’s median household income has not grown in a decade.” West Virginia’s inflation-adjusted median income has dropped 9 percent in the last decade, even as the national figure has risen by 3 percent. We rate his statement True.

This story was originally published by PolitiFact.

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Fact Check

Fact-check: Does West Virginia Spend Half its Budget on K-12 Education?

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Tyler Consolidated High School social studies teacher Susan Gilbert. Photo: Ashton Marra/100 Days in Appalachia

Is almost half of West Virginia’s state budget devoted to K-12 education? That’s what West Virginia state Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, a Democrat, said.

“Fifty percent of our (West Virginia) budget was for lower education,” Prezioso said during a panel discussion at West Virginia University on Nov. 29, 2018.

We looked at the most recent budget report released by the state to determine whether Prezioso was accurate.

According to the most recent West Virginia executive budget document, the state spent $1.919 billion on “education” in fiscal year 2017, the most recent year for which actual expenditures are currently available. (This category does not include university spending. Expenditures for “higher education” totaled $392.9 million.)

Total expenditures for fiscal year 2017 were about $4.2 billion. That means K-12 education accounted for about 46 percent of the budget.

As for the recommendations for fiscal year 2019, education spending would account for 44.26 percent of overall spending.

After the panel, PolitiFact West Virginia asked Prezioso to clarify what he had meant, and he said that the 50 percent figure was an approximation.

Our ruling  

At the panel, Prezioso said that “50 percent of our (West Virginia) budget was for lower education.”

We found that it was 46 percent for 2017 and a recommended 44 percent for 2019. Prezioso was off by a few percentage points, but he was in the ballpark, so we rate his statement Mostly True.

This story was originally published by PolitiFact.

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