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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

Checking Bernie Sanders on Life Expectancy in Virginia, West Virginia

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Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign stop Thursday, May 5, 2016 at the Morgantown Event Center. Photo: Jesse Wright/WVPB

During a June 12 speech at George Washington University, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders offered what he said was a stark example of income inequality and its real-world consequences.

“In 2014, for example, in McDowell County, W.Va., one of the poorest counties in the nation, life expectancy for men was 64 years. In Fairfax County, Va., a wealthy county, just 350 miles away, life expectancy was nearly 82 years, an 18-year differential. The life expectancy gap for women in the two counties was 12 years.” 

Was Sanders right? We took a closer look. (Sanders’ campaign did not respond to an inquiry.)

Let’s start by noting that the two counties are indeed at opposite ends of the income spectrum.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, McDowell County, in the heart of Appalachian coal country, has a median household income of $25,595, about 44 percent of the national median household income of $57,652.

By contrast, Fairfax County, located in the affluent suburbs of Washington, D.C., has a median household income of $117,515, or slightly more than double the national median. 

So median household income is more than four times higher in Fairfax County than it is in McDowell County.

What about life expectancy?

The longest-running data on life expectancy by county in the United States is compiled by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. We used the institute’s interactive database to find the most recent data for both of the counties Sanders mentioned.

Here’s a summary for 2014, the most recent year available:

The data shows that life expectancy is a few years longer than Sanders said for men in McDowell County — 67 instead of 64 — which in turn makes the gap for men between the two counties 15 years, rather than the 18-year figure Sanders cited.

For women, Sanders also is slightly off — there’s an 11-year gap rather than a 12-year gap.

But while Sanders is a bit off on the numbers, his overall point is sound. In fact, not only can people in Fairfax County expect to live longer than those in McDowell County, but the gap between the two has been widening for nearly four decades.

This chart shows life expectancy for men, women, and both in the two counties since 1980. Figures for McDowell County are shown in red, and figures for Fairfax County are shown in green. It’s easy to see the trend lines going in opposite directions.

It appears that Sanders’ comparison actually emerged more than five years ago, in a New York Times article by Annie Lowrey. She wrote:

Fairfax County, Va., and McDowell County, W.Va., are separated by 350 miles, about a half-day’s drive. Traveling west from Fairfax County, the gated communities and bland architecture of military contractors give way to exurbs, then to farmland and eventually to McDowell’s coal mines and the forested slopes of the Appalachians. Perhaps the greatest distance between the two counties is this: Fairfax is a place of the haves, and McDowell of the have-nots. …

One of the starkest consequences of that divide is seen in the life expectancies of the people there. Residents of Fairfax County are among the longest-lived in the country: Men have an average life expectancy of 82 years and women, 85, about the same as in Sweden. In McDowell, the averages are 64 and 73, about the same as in Iraq.

Our ruling

Sanders said, “In 2014 … in McDowell County, W.Va., one of the poorest counties in the nation, life expectancy for men was 64 years. In Fairfax County, Va., a wealthy county, just 350 miles away, life expectancy was nearly 82 years, an 18 year differential. The life expectancy gap for women in the two counties was 12 years.” 

A few of these numbers are slightly off, but Sanders’ overall point that there is a large gap in life expectancy between the two counties is solid. We rule his statement Mostly True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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Fact Check

Fact-check: Can Cell Phones, Bluetooth Defeat Credit Card Skimmers?

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A researcher holds a magnetic credit card "read head" that is used to read information from cards during retail transactions. Photo: AP

Should you be worried about credit card fraud when you pull up to the gas pump? A post circulating recently on social media says you can deploy your cell phone to stay safe.

An April 14, 2019, post on a Facebook page called “Local Jackson County News WV” told readers they can use their cell phones at gas stations to determine whether a pump has a credit card skimmer — a device that can steal credit card numbers.

The post said, “Just a tip, When you pull up to the gas pump to fill up your car, get your cell phone and search for Bluetooth devices. If a sequence of letters and numbers show up don’t pay at the pump. One of the pumps has a credit card skimmer inside of it. All of these skimmers run on Bluetooth.”

Can Bluetooth sensors always determine if there are credit card skimmers in gas pumps? We took a closer look.

How skimmers work

First, some basics: Credit card skimmers are real, and they’re illegal.

When installed in gas pumps, skimmers listen for the data traffic from the credit card reader, record it to memory and pass that data onto the pump controller.

Skimmer technology has become so advanced that thieves do not have to return to the pump to retrieve the stolen information. Perpetrators can simply sit in their cars and download credit card information to a laptop.

A special agent with the U.S. Secret Service told NBCNews last year that the agency recovers 20 to 30 skimmers a week, with an average skimmer holding information from 80 credit cards.

Can Bluetooth sensors stop skimmers?

Bluetooth can be a useful tool for consumers who want to protect their information, but they are far from foolproof.

Paige Anderson, the director of government relations with the National Association of Convenience Stores, a trade group representing gas stations and convenience stores, told PolitiFact that there are too many kinds of credit card skimmers to rely on a phone to detect them.

“Some use Bluetooth technology, some use cell service and some skimming devices store the data themselves,” Anderson said.

Vassil Roussev, a computer scientist and director of the University of New Orleans Cyber Center, said that a “hit” on Bluetooth “could very well be an indicator of compromise by a skimmer, but it could also be any number of other devices within 30 feet or so, such as devices in other cars. More importantly, not finding one does not mean the pump is safe.”

The skimmer need not be detectable by Bluetooth, he said, or it could be programmed to send signals only at certain times.

“Overall, I would say that this tip offers a low level of protection,” Roussev said.

Anderson added that checking for skimmers is something gas station owners and workers need to do on a daily basis.

Retailers should conduct daily internal and external checks and take other measures to foil data thieves, she said. These practices reduce the risk of potential credit card theft, she said, though they may not eliminate it.

Our ruling

Local Jackson County News WV published a post that said, “Just a tip, When you pull up to the gas pump to fill up your car, get your cell phone and search for Bluetooth devices. If a sequence of letters and numbers show up don’t pay at the pump. One of the pumps has a credit card skimmer inside of it. All of these skimmers run on Bluetooth.”

Checking a Bluetooth sensor in your cell phone before inserting your credit card in a gas pump may be able to determine whether the pump has been compromised. However, skimmer technologies vary, and many types of skimmers won’t be detectable using the Bluetooth method.

We rate the statement Half True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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Fact Check

Fact-check: Are 19% of West Virginians on Food Stamps?

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A food drive at Newark Liberty International Airport, on Jan. 23, 2019. Photo: AP, Julio Cortez

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., recently took to Twitter to criticize a Trump administration proposal on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, sometimes known as food stamps.

Manchin wrote: “19% of WVians rely on SNAP, but proposed changes would take food assistance from those struggling to find stable employment while doing nothing to help them to become permanently employed. I’m urging @USDA Sec Sonny Perdue to withdraw the proposal.”

The tweet linked to a press release from Manchin explaining his position on the proposal, which would give states less flexibility on enforcing work requirements for SNAP beneficiaries. Manchin and several dozen senators from both parties expressed opposition to the proposal.

We won’t address the pros and cons of the Trump administration proposal here, but we did wonder if almost one of every five people in West Virginia rely on SNAP.

We checked with experts and looked at the data, and it turns out that Manchin was pretty close to the mark.

In February 2019, the most recent month for which full data is available, West Virginia had 314,042 SNAP beneficiaries. Meanwhile, the state’s estimated population for 2018, according to the Census Bureau, was 1,805,832.

That works out to 17.4 percent of state residents, or a bit lower than the 19 percent figure Manchin cited.

Our ruling

Manchin said, “19% of WVians rely on SNAP, but proposed changes would take food assistance from those struggling to find stable employment while doing nothing to help them to become permanently employed.”

The percentage Manchin cited is a little high, but it’s close. We rate his statement Mostly True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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