Society and Culture

The real problem with media ‘fact checking’

Over at the Weekly Standard, Mark Hemingway runs through some of the more egregious examples of media “fact checking,” which has become a staple of their political coverage but, as Hemingway shows, too often doesn’t live up to billing. In his piece, Hemingway approvingly cites my work with Jason Richwine on federal employee pay as a rebuttal to PolitiFact’s “fact check” on statements made by Senator Rand Paul.

As it happens, Jason and I have had two additional run-ins with fact checkers with regard to public employee pay, and both highlight a key problem with these columns: fact checkers have taken on more than they can really chew, and as a result outsource their fact checking to people who either may not be fully knowledgeable or who have their own dogs in the fight.

For instance, this time last year FactCheck.org—the granddaddy of the fact-checking game—published an article titled “Are Federal Workers Overpaid?” which looked to referee disputes between federal employees, who claim to be underpaid, and some conservative politicians, who argue they are paid double private sector levels. (Both are wrong, though conservatives are closer to the truth.) But FactCheck’s writers were apparently wholly ignorant of three decades of peer-reviewed economic research on public-private pay comparisons, nearly all of which conclude that federal employees are overpaid. Worse, FactCheck basically outsourced their analysis to a private pay consultant who thinks that wage regressions are something so exotic that most economists don’t understand them. What we ended up with was a letter to the editor after the fact, which doesn’t amount to much.

More recently, PolitiFact (Cleveland Plain Dealer edition) declared a study of Ohio public sector pay by Jason and me to be “mostly false,” by effectively turning over their analysis to Alicia Munnell of Boston College. Munnell concluded that Ohio public employees are overpaid by roughly 10 percent, which isn’t chicken-feed but is far less than the 43 percent that Jason and I found. Here’s the problem: Munnell’s own work on public sector employees uses a number of questionable assumptions while ours is more consistent with the academic literature. Had PolitiFact, say, contacted us, we’d have told them. But instead they simply published the article, just prior to Ohio’s big vote on repealing Governor Kasich’s reforms of public sector pay, leaving us to respond in a letter to the editor. This was one of very few occasions when I’ve been really, really ticked off with how a news outlet handled something.

Fact checking is good for newspapers’ business and in many cases serves the public, but it’s very easy for them to expand the franchise well beyond their ability to accurately adjudicate the facts. In particular, outsourcing their fact checking to presumed experts who themselves may need to be fact-checked is no way to go.

3 thoughts on “The real problem with media ‘fact checking’

  1. I think someone should look at the pay of the federal work force after taking out Congress, President, the cabinet and all the Czars the president put in, or yes and the guy in Tennessee at the TVA that someone said was making Millions and called a Federal employee. Then look at the real employees, those that do the work, not the appointment officials, then compare the doctors, lawyers and CPA’s salaries to the private sector, showing base salary and salary plus benefits and see what the difference really is.

  2. It’s amazing how all those fact checkers that keep quoting Federal Civil Service pay never seem to find the OPM web site that shows the offset for the different locality areas. They also seem to claim that all Federal employees receive the same pay scales as those in the DC area when this is not true. I know that because I work in a “Right to Work” state, my pay scale is lower than a counterpart that works in the Northeast. I also know that there is a difference in pay from the GS worker and the WG workers.

    I think that the fact checkers need to do quite a bit of homework and stop spouting whatever they feel the general public will swallow.

  3. OMG!! Someone with a competent answer and I bet it never shows up in the political arguments where the supposed expert testimony is slanted to either parties primary agenda. True, fact finding, on salary information has to be related to the locality and the realistic cataloging of the actual work done against what would be expected in a private sector position. Many Federal Employees are underpaid on the basis that our work is often across multiple disciplines while the private sector employee is more restrictive in nature and only working in one or two focus areas. Of course, the reverse is also true in regard to different specialties and pay grades. Judging/cataloging and categorizing the “PAY” quotient is just not as simple as many think. That’s why this is such a heated issue and quite often – the easier approach is just to broadcast a very flamboyant position and hope you can get it past the screeners before the backlash of challenges go public.
    I spent nearly 15 years of my 35 as a HR Manager much of that time examining pay and compensation. During the entire time, shuttled from city to city obtaining a in person reviews for the scopes of the pay processes, duties, desk audits and the private sector equivalents. Then using that data to determine if there was sufficient evidence that the pay and compensation were not closely balanced against the private sector positions that were closest in equality to the position in that locality. In the end, it turned out that for the most part, the public servant was, with the locality adjustment, pretty close in compensation in most areas of the country. In those areas where the discrepancy was the highest, surprisingly, or maybe not, Washington DC was usually 10%-20% higher in pay and when you factor in the compensation, usually about 20%-30% higher across all positions relative to the local economy and their closest equivalent in the private sector. I say closest equivalent because there are no real equals when it comes to these positions since the majority are privileged positions and exposed to sensitive content that could not be allowed in the public for if it were, the political representation would be significantly impaired and their duties compromised. It is the very nature of politics to hide the weakness of the most powerful to protect them from exposures that would undermine their ability to lead. That said, the real questions relating to pay and compensation is the simplest one. What are we willing to pay a politician and their support staff to keep secret those things which nearly any honest person would be imprisoned for?
    If you want your politician to get the thing that you want for you, often they have to do it by subverting the integrity of their office to give a little and take a little in exchange for the agreements. After a while, that subversion becomes so muddled and convoluted that the honesty factors are all gone and we are left with the skeletons that would lead to their impeachment or imprisoning, neither of which they are willing to allow into the public’s eye.
    So, yea, they are more than willing to justify paying their staff and promoting them at extreme rates to protect their own interests. After all, isn’t that the same result as would be achieved by extortion and bribery only disguised in the merits of our own corrupted system?
    Unfortunately, none of us will ever really know the truth as thats just the way it works.

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