The Challenge of Our New Fact Check Ruling
Our new Unfounded ruling allows us to call out people who make statements that can’t be confirmed or disproven by evidence. But what happens when evidence finally materializes?
Earlier this month, we rolled out two new Fact Check rulings.
One of them was Unfounded, our term for statements lacking sufficient backup to support them. This new label has already given us some pause.
Last month, a San Diego tech entrepreneur claimed in a U-T San Diego op-ed that two-thirds of minimum wage workers earn a raise in their first year and pointed to a 10-year-old study to back up his statement.
We fact-checked MP3.com founder Michael Robertson’s claim and decided it was Unfounded for a handful of reasons: The study he cited was dated and didn’t incorporate employment trends during and after the Great Recession that began in December 2007. Even one of the economics professors who worked on it couldn’t say whether it would be relevant today. And the analysis was bankrolled by the Employment Policies Institute, a group that opposes minimum-wage hikes.
About a week after we published our Fact Check, EPI’s research director emailed me to share some new evidence. A study published in December incorporated more recent Census employment data and found that 65.9 percent of minimum-wage workers who remained in the labor force after a year received raises. That percentage fell to 51 percent when workers who left the labor force or lost their jobs were incorporated.
We debated the issue and decided to update our initial Fact Check, giving it the second of our two new rulings: A Stretch. You can check out our updated Fact Check here.
In the process, we couldn’t avoid two big questions: Will revisiting this Fact Check set a precedent for other statements we declare unfounded? Will those determinations crumble weeks or even years later if someone presents new evidence?
In this case, we decided it made sense to dive back in. Our recent ruling was partly based on the lack of recent data on minimum-wage workers and it turned out a 2013 study addressed the issue.
We may not always take the same approach. When we’re presented with a bold claim, we spend time vetting it and decide on the best ruling with the information we’re able to track down – meaning that the grade fits at the time.
Imagine this scenario. This month, a politician makes a claim about the results of a law she pushed even though no research or numbers exist to back her up, so we give her statement an unfounded ruling. A year later, sufficient backup materializes.
The new evidence doesn’t change the fact that the lawmaker boasted about the measure’s effects before there was proof of them. Her claim still merits an unfounded ruling.
Of course, every Fact Check scenario is different. We’ll have to evaluate Unfounded rulings on occasion when new evidence presents itself.