Should Fact Checks Have Expiration Dates?

by Dan Ward

I’ve written often about my concerns about the “fact check” genre.  When journalists review statements and assign grades such as “Pants on Fire” and “Four Pinocchios,” it’s hard to view their rulings as anything other than opinion.

Determining a level of truthfulness requires judgment, which is colored by a journalist’s own beliefs and biases.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s opinion journalism, and should be labeled as such.

Now comes the news that, in light of the latest chemical attack in Syria, PolitiFact has decided to pull a 2014 Fact Check in which it rated as “Mostly True” a claim by former Secretary of State John Kerry that “we got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out.”

The rating was based largely on the reports of international “experts” with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the same experts who later reported that Syria used chemical munitions in 2014 and 2015, and which reported in 2016 that Syria had failed to live up to its promises on the removal of chemical weapons.

PolitiFact now states that “conclusive evidence was not available at the time of the original fact check. One of our principles is that we rate statements based on what is known at the time.”

I didn’t realize that fact checks came with an expiration date.  How can PolitiFact claim to offer an objective rating of a supposed statement of fact while also recognizing that information changes over time?  They should change their ratings to “Likely True” or “Likely False” and make it clear that their ratings represent the best subjective judgment of their reporters.

I don’t mean to be a media scold on this issue.  The reporters who work in the fact check realm are doing difficult work, and just like the writers for newspaper opinion pages, their judgments can provide very useful information.  My concern is that their readers, and the consumers of media who re-publish their rulings, view them as objective arbiters of truth, when instead they are offering their best opinion based on what they know at the time.

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