WRAL’s poll could put WRAL’s fact-checking partner to work

On November 17, 2019, WRAL announced it had become the official North Carolina partner with PolitiFact, congratulating itself for being “committed to cutting through the noise and bringing you facts.”

PolitiFact, WRAL tells us, “fact checks the accuracy of claims made by elected officials and others on its Truth-O-Meter scale.”

Here’s how it’s supposed to work:

PolitiFact reporters focus on a single political claim or statement and aim to determine how factual it is. The process always starts with the source. The reporter reaches out to the person or organization to whom the statement is credited, to learn the source(s) of their claims. Then they work to independently verify the information in the claim.

After extensive research, a PolitiFact reporter rates the statement on the “Truth-o-Meter”— from true to false or, worse, “pants on fire”—a designation meaning a claim is so false it’s ridiculous.

The defining political question in NC right now

If there is one political issue that’s defined North Carolina politics for nearly a year now, it’s Gov. Roy Cooper’s decision to veto the state budget. Cooper frames the budget debate as “a choice between further cuts in corporate taxes or investments in our teachers.” Those were his words in the annual North Carolina CEO Forum on November 11, 2019.

Has PolitiFact or WRAL done anything with Cooper’s depiction?

PolitiFact has done nothing. It could have been the easiest thing they’ve ever written:

  • Does the state budget present a binary choice between higher teacher pay or a lower franchise tax? No.
  • Are teacher salaries exclusively funded by the franchise tax? No, obviously.
  • Would the forgone franchise tax revenue cover Cooper’s teacher pay increase? No.
  • Don’t state budget negotiations require choices among untold numbers of state and local funding recipients? Yes. Everyone should know that.
  • Doesn’t the budget the legislature passed increase teacher pay, and isn’t the amount of the increase what the governor and legislature disagree over? Yes.
  • We rate the governor’s framing as false.

Meanwhile, their partner not only didn’t question the governor’s false framework, they doubled down on it. WRAL just announced results of their poll with this headline: “NC residents back Cooper’s positions in state budget debate.”

Here’s the money question: “If North Carolina legislators had to choose between giving more money to schools or cutting taxes on businesses to boost the economy, what should NC lawmakers do?”

See the questions above for a handy reference of what’s wrong with that poll question.

It’s hard to see how a news service publicly proclaiming its “commitment to cutting through the noise and bringing you facts” would deliberate poll on the noise and cheer that it works. If that commitment were real, WRAL’s takeaway wouldn’t be “A new WRAL News poll shows Cooper is winning the popular vote in the ongoing battle,” it would be “It’s obvious we have way more work to do.”

Other questions

The poll asked only four questions. Three regarded teacher pay, and one concerned Medicaid expansion (the governor’s other stated priority). Those questions were also weighted to deliver answers favorable to the governor’s political positions. My colleague Joe Coletti discusses the problems with the Medicaid question here.

Such a poll doesn’t just mislead news consumers. It also misinforms their own reporters. Well-worded questions could have sussed out more clearly people’s thoughts on the matters at hand, including even the depth of their passion on them. Instead, consumers are handed a parody of their own thoughts, which reporters will take and use in future stories.

Speaking of their own reporters, why wouldn’t WRAL take the time to find out what North Carolinians think about Cooper’s corporate giveaways? Cooper made $146 million’s worth in state commitments to individual corporations in 2019 — while he’s still stonewalling WRAL reporter Tyler Dukes on the full size of the incentives package he was prepared to give Apple.

It’s been over a year. Cooper is likely in violation of state law, and definitely in violation of the spirit of the law. And he’s doing that to their colleague. Doesn’t that bother WRAL?

If WRAL were really interested in “the popular vote” of state spending choices, wouldn’t they want to know what people think about Cooper’s giveaways to corporations, too? Would respondents think those grant commitments come at the expense of teacher raises? Would they think differently of a franchise tax cut open to all businesses, big or small, in the context of special giveaways to a handful of well-connected corporations?

One question asked this: “There are two proposals to raise teacher salaries. One would raise salaries by 4% over two years. The other would raise the salaries by 9% over two years. Which proposal should be passed into law?”

This question is based on two items: the standalone teacher pay bill (Senate Bill 354) the General Assembly passed after Cooper’s budget veto, and Cooper’s first budget proposal.

Why didn’t WRAL ask people about Cooper vetoing the standalone teacher pay bill? That would involve informing people that there was a third proposal: to raise teacher salaries by zero percent.

What would people think about these options: teachers getting a 3.9 percent increase, a 4.4 percent increase (if the Senate overrode the governor’s veto of the budget), or a zero percent increase in 2019? Would they agree with the governor’s stated reasons that raises of 3.9 to 4.4 percent are “not good enough” and “paltry” to the extent that they would actually prefer Cooper’s delivering teachers a guaranteed zero raise?

When is a fact not a fact fact?

On that matter, we know what PolitiFact thinks. They “fact-checked” Rep. David Lewis’s tweet about Cooper’s veto on SB 354:

Gov. Cooper just vetoed another pay raise that the #NCGA passed, as he has every single teacher pay raise we’ve ever passed

This is a fairly straight-up fact check, it would seem. There are only two facts presented:

  • Did Cooper just veto the teacher pay raise? Yes.
  • Has Cooper vetoed every single teacher pay raise the legislature has ever passed since he became governor? “Technically accurate.”
  • We rate this statement as true. Next!

PolitiFact rated it … “Half True.”

Here’s how they determined that a statement that’s completely accurate is half full of it:

Lewis said Cooper has vetoed “every single teacher pay raise we’ve ever passed.” While this is technically accurate, it suggests that Cooper opposes teacher pay raises — which isn’t true.

In fact, Cooper vetoed the proposed raises in hopes of securing more money for educators. And his approval of step raises shows he’s not blocking teachers from the money they’re owed.

The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details that might give the public a different impression of the situation. We rate this claim Half True.

Leaving out important details that might give the public a different impression of a situation — if that’s half-disqualifying for a tweet, how bad must that be for a poll question?

Whaddaya think, partner?

Jon Sanders / Director of Regulatory Studies

Jon Sanders studies regulatory policy, a veritable kudzu of invasive government and unintended consequences. As director of regulatory studies at the John Locke Foundation, Jo...

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