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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 More Overdoses Than Any State?

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Photo: AP Photo

Does West Virginia have the nation’s leading rate of overdoses?

On Oct. 3, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., tweeted, “#WV has the highest overdose rate per capita of any state in our nation. That’s why I made sure the SUPPORT for Patients & Communities Act included a set aside for states like WV. This language more than tripled the amount of funding coming to our state for this coming year.”

 

Here, we’ll focus on whether West Virginia “has the highest overdose rate per capita of any state in our nation.”

We turned to an analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that was collected and analyzed by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The data is from 2016.

Manchin’s tweet wasn’t specific about whether he was referring to opioid overdoses specifically or overdoses generally. The Kaiser Family Foundation analysis includes data for both, so we looked at both categories.

On both lists, West Virginia has the unhappy distinction of ranking No. 1.

Here’s a chart showing the data for opioid overdoses specifically. The data looks at the number of overdoses per 100,000 population, which is an equivalent measure to per capita. The opioid overdose rate in West Virginia easily outpaces the second-ranking state, New Hampshire.

 

As for overdoses overall, West Virginia finishes first, with Ohio ranking second.

 

Our ruling

Manchin said that West Virginia “has the highest overdose rate per capita of any state in our nation.”

Official government data shows that West Virginia ranks first per capita in both opioid overdoses specifically and in overdoses more generally. We rate the statement True.

This story was originally published by PolitiFact.

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Fact-check: Did West Virginia Lead the Way in Construction Job Growth?

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FILE- In this Aug. 30, 2018, file photo a workers toil on a new home under construction in Denver. Photo:David Zalubowski/AP Photo FILE

Did West Virginia lead the nation in the growth of construction jobs jobs in 2017? The West Virginia Republican Party says it did.

On Sept. 14, the party tweeted, “Did you know West Virginia added the highest percentage of new construction jobs in 2017 in the United States, at 14.4%? This amounted to 4,300 additional jobs! In fact, #WV was the only state with double-digit growth! Read more about the #WVcomeback.”

 

The tweet linked to an article from the Wheeling News-Register citing those numbers. But we wanted to confirm this with original data.

It turns out that the source of the 50-state comparison is a report by the Associated General Contractors of America, a trade association in the construction industry. The comparison is drawn from data collected from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Here are the five states with the biggest percentage increases during 2017:

State Increase in jobs Twelve-month percentage increase
West Virginia 4,300 14.4 percent
California 75,500 9.8 percent
Nevada 7,800 9.7 percent
New Mexico 4,300 9.7 percent
Idaho 3,800 8.7 percent

So the party’s tweet was accurate.

We also took a longer-term look at construction employment in the state. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, construction employment in West Virginia bottomed out in the second half of 2016 and rose consistently through the first quarter of 2018 before stabilizing.

Still, the current level of construction employment in West Virginia hasn’t returned to its nearly three-decade peak in the period before the onset of the Great Recession.

It’s worth noting that construction jobs, while important for people within the industry and within adjacent industries, only account for about 4.5 percent of non-agricultural employment in the state — about 34,000 construction jobs in August 2018 out of 752,000 nonfarm jobs in all.

“Total job growth clearly matters more to West Virginia citizens than employment in just one not-so-big industry,” said Gary Burtless, an economist with the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

Still, as far as the tweet’s limited claim goes, it is accurate.

Our ruling

The West Virginia Republican Party tweeted that “West Virginia added the highest percentage of new construction jobs in 2017 in the United States, at 14.4%? This amounted to 4,300 additional jobs! In fact, #WV was the only state with double-digit growth!”

A look at the original data shows that the No. 1 ranking, the percentage increase, and the raw increase in jobs are all correct. So is West Virginia’s distinction as the only state with double-digit growth in 2017. We rate the statement True.

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Fact Check

Fact-check: Are Black Lung Cases at a 25-year High?

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Scott Tiller, a coal miner of 31 years, takes a break while operating a continuous miner machine in a coal mine roughly 40-inches-high, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015, in Welch, W.Va. Photo: David Goldman/AP Photo

Are cases of black lung disease, a scourge of the coal-mining industry, more numerous today than in recent memory? That’s the message of a joint press release by U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.

Black lung disease, also called coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, is caused by dusts that are inhaled and deposited in the lungs, which can create scar tissue that makes it more difficult to breathe. The condition can be prevented with appropriate respiratory protection, but once it develops, there is no cure, according to the American Lung Association.

The senators’ statement touted legislation to help with the early detection of black lung disease. The legislation requires the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to submit a report to Congress on ways to boost outreach efforts to increase participation in the Coal Workers’ Health Surveillance Program. (We’re checking Manchin rather than Capito because he was the one quoted citing this particular statistic in the news release.)

The press release, posted on Manchin’s website on Aug. 23, 2018, said, “Black lung cases are at a 25-year high, and with today’s technology and our knowledge of this disease, that is simply unacceptable.”

Is this correct? We took a closer look.

The black lung study

The news release from Manchin and Capito cites a study published by the American Journal of Public Health. The study was produced by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention office in Morgantown, W.Va. Researchers used radiographs collected from 1970 to 2017 to determine the ebb and flow of the disease.

The study found that not only have black lung cases increased but also that their prevalence will likely be reflected in future trends of such conditions as progressive massive fibrosis, which refers to masses in the upper pulmonary lobes of the lungs.

Here are three charts from the study showing, from left to right, the prevalence of black lung in the United States as a whole; the prevalence in central Appalachia, defined as Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia; and the prevalence in the United States outside of central Appalachia.

These charts show that around 1970, the prevalence of black lung was far higher than it is today — about 30 percent of miners with the longest tenures. That rate fell steadily, and by the late 1990s it had declined to the single digits.

But that decline has since reversed. Now, the national prevalence in miners with 25 years or more of tenure exceeds 10 percent, and in central Appalachia, 20.6 percent of long-tenured miners have the disease.

Manchin’s office did not respond to an inquiry for this article.

Our ruling

Manchin said that “black lung cases are at a 25-year high.”

A scientific study found that the prevalence of black lung disease plummeted between 1970 and the late 1990s, but that the rate has risen since then, although nowhere near its all-time high. That’s consistent with Manchin’s description. We rate the statement True.

This story was originally published by PolitiFact.

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