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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: Did Cabell County, W.Va., Cut Overdoses by 40 Percent?

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Thommy Hill stands outside the Cabell County/Huntington Health Department, where he works in the harm reduction program, in Huntington, W.Va., on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018. The former drug dealer has become its gatekeeper and central cog in the program. He knows every drug user who visits and constantly tries to persuade them to try treatment _ arranging immediate transportation and handing them a backpack full of clothes if they agree. Photo: AP Photo, Tyler Evert

During his State of the State address on Jan. 9, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice made the opioid epidemic a focus of his speech.

At one point, Justice said, “Now, in Cabell County, we just had information that we reduced our overdoses by 40 percent.”

The governor’s office did not respond to an inquiry, and when we reached out to local and state offices, we were unable to get a response on one key point. For that reason, we aren’t rating this statement on the Truth-O-Meter, but we decided to share what we did find out.

Only data on nonfatal overdoses was available for 2018; we were unable to confirm the statistics on fatal overdoses. Justice didn’t specify the type of overdose in his speech.

Data on overdoses is reported to the West Virginia Office of Emergency Medical Services.

Connie Priddy, a Cabell County EMS compliance officer who is tasked with reporting official data to the state, told the Huntington-based Herald-Dispatch newspaper in January that Cabell County had 742 fewer non-fatal drug overdoses in 2018 compared with the record-setting 2017. That was a decrease of 40.5 percent.

Cabell County had fewer overdoses in each month of 2018 compared to the same month in 2017, Priddy told the newspaper. In December 2018, for instance, there were 80 overdoses, compared to 118 overdoses in December 2017. (We reached out to Priddy’s office but did not hear back.)

Cabell County, in the western part of the state, is one of West Virginia’s most populous counties and includes the city of Huntington. As we’ve previously noted, West Virginia has the highest overdose rate per capita of any state in our nation, and Cabell County has been particularly hard hit.

So why the decline in fatal overdoses? A trio of federal grants, we learned, likely helped.

In September 2017, the city of Huntington announced that Cabell County had received three federal grants totaling $2 million.

Two of the federal grants, from the Justice Department and the Department of Health and Human Services, were designed to support the county’s Quick Response Team, a group comprised of “medical care providers, law enforcement, recovery and treatment providers, and university researchers to respond to individuals who have overdosed within 72 hours.”

The team is responsible for designing a plan of action after an overdose, as well as “overdose education, screening, risk-reduction training” and training in the use of naloxone, which is used to treat overdoses.

The third grant, also from the Justice Department, was designed to aid the Turn Around program, a pilot program at a local jail that identifies and assesses individuals convicted of misdemeanors who have health and substance-use issues.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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Fact Check

Fact-check: Is Jim Justice Right About a Record Surplus in 2019?

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Gov. Jim Justice, R. W.Va., delivers his annual State of the State speech on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, in Charleston, W.Va. Photo: AP Photo/Tyler Evert

Shortly before the start of the 2019 legislative session, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice touted the state’s improved budget position for the 2019 fiscal year.

In a tweet sent on Jan. 8, Justice wrote, “Another month of record-breaking revenue numbers! For December, we had a $44.8 million surplus. Year-to-date we are $185.9 million above estimates. This is the largest cumulative surplus for the first six months of any fiscal year in state history!”

Is that correct? Justice’s office didn’t respond to inquiries, but we were able to find supporting evidence.

The tweet linked to a press release from the that detailed the list of revenues and expenses from the general revenue fund, and data from West Virginia State Budget Office supported the information in the press release.

The general revenue fund for December — the most recent completed period at the time of Justice’s tweet — had a $44.8 million dollar surplus, with collections totaling $185.9 million more than had been estimated. That’s in line with Justice’s tweet.

But is this actually the largest first-six-month surplus of any fiscal year in state history?

Numbers from WV Checkbook and the West Virginia State Budget Office, with information dating back to 1999, confirm that through the first six months of the 2019 fiscal year, West Virginia did indeed have the largest cumulative surplus since 1999.

The previous post-1999 high occurred in 2011,  when the budget surplus hit $159.9 million more than estimated.

According to the governor’s office, the rise in collections can be attributed to an increased rate of growth in a number of taxes including severance tax, corporation net income tax, consumer sales tax and personal income tax.

It’s worth noting that every year, West Virginia’s economy grows bigger, so comparing budget figures across time, as Justice did, is tricky. The state’s gross domestic product, when adjusted for inflation, was 14 percent bigger in 2017 than it was in 1999.Our Ruling

Justice said for fiscal year 2019, West Virginia had “the largest cumulative surplus for the first six months of any fiscal year in state history.”

We checked the historical data and found that he’s correct going back to 1999. However, that’s not the entire history of the state. We couldn’t confirm any data prior to 1999, so it’s conceivable that there was a larger surplus prior to that year.

We rate the statement Mostly True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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Fact Check

Fact-check: Would One Fentanyl Seizure Be Able to Kill Every West Virginian 32 Times Over?

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In its purest form, two to three milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal. Courtesy: New Hampshire State Police Forensic Lab

When President Donald Trump announced that he would go around Congress to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border by declaring a national emergency, U.S. Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va., tweeted a video supporting the idea.

In the Feb. 15 video, Miller said, “West Virginia has been hit especially hard by illegal drugs smuggled across our southern border. Just two weeks ago, Customs and Border Protection seized enough fentanyl to kill every person in West Virginia 32 times over.”

There’s no question that West Virginia has been hit hard by the opioid crisis — PolitiFact West Virginia has previously reported that the state ranked No. 1 in the nation for opioid overdoses per capita.

But what about the idea that a single federal seizure of fentanyl could have killed every West Virginian 32 times over? We took a closer look.

Miller’s office told us that they were referring to late January seizure of 254 pounds of fentanyl by Customs and Border Protection at the Nogales port of entry in Arizona. The drugs — which were “concealed within a special floor compartment of a trailer that was laden with cucumbers,” according to the the agency — represented the largest fentanyl seizure in the agency’s history.

Miller’s office also walked us through the math they used to arrive at their figure.

The seizure of 254 pounds converts to 115.2 kilograms. In turn, 115.212 kilograms equals 115.212 million milligrams.

Miller’s office said it used 2 milligrams as a lethal dose of fentanyl, citing information from the Drug Enforcement Administration that 2 milligrams is “a lethal dose for most people.”

Meanwhile, 115.212 million milligrams works out to 57.606 million lethal doses of 2 milligrams each.

West Virginia’s population in 2018 was 1,805,832. If you divide 57.606 millon lethal doses by 1,836,843, it means that amount of fentanyl could theoretically kill every West Virginian 31.8 times over. Rounded up, that works out to the 32 times that Miller cited.

To make sure the 2 milligram threshold was sound, we checked with Timothy J. Pifer, the director of the New Hampshire State Police Forensic Laboratory, an expert on fentanyl and its lethality.

“Based upon research, toxicology reports and information from other agencies, two to three milligrams of fentanyl in its purest form could be fatal,” Pifer said.

However, he added that the technical details make a difference.

For one thing, if you use the 3 milligram threshold instead, the Nogales seizure would be enough to kill every West Virginian about 21 times over, not 32. There would also be a difference in lethality depending on the age, body size, and health of the individual in question.

In addition, Pifer added that “is not clear whether or not the 254 pounds is pure fentanyl or fentanyl that has been already diluted for sale or distribution on the street.” The average degree of purity would make a difference in its lethality.

One final point: Miller used the statistic to support the case for constructing a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. However, the fentanyl was seized at a port of entry. A wall wouldn’t prevent that type of smuggling through established checkpoints.  

Our ruling

Miller said, “Just two weeks ago, Customs and Border Protection seized enough fentanyl to kill every person in West Virginia 32 times over.”

If you consider 2 milligrams to be a lethal dose — which the Drug Enforcement Administration does — then Miller’s estimate is very close to correct. The only caveat is that differences in purity and the health and size of the potential victim can make a difference.

That said, there’s no question that the fentanyl from the seizure, spread evenly and effectively through the population, could have killed every West Virginia resident many times over.

We rate the statement Mostly True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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