Teachable Instant: Fact, Fiction & the 2016 Election

Can we trust what the presidential candidates are telling us? How can we know what is true and not true? This brief classroom lesson explores fact-checking and the 2016 presidential campaign.   


Quiz:  True or false? 

Ask students to judge whether the following statements by politicians are true or false.

  • "You’re more likely to get struck by lightning in Texas than to find any kind of voter fraud."  — Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ)
  • "You see the top 25 hedge fund managers making more than all of America’s kindergarten teachers combined."  — Hillary Clinton (Democratic presidential candidate)
  • "Today the Walton family of Walmart own more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of America."  — Bernie Sanders (Democratic presidential candidate)
  • "We are in the sixth year of recovery, and median income is below what it was at the start of the recovery."  — Jeb Bush (Republican presidential candidate)
  • "It cost us more to shut the government down than to keep it open."  — Rand Paul (Republican presidential candidate)

Answer: They are all true, as determined by Politifact.

How about these statements?

  • Planned Parenthood is "not actually doing women’s health issues."  — Jeb Bush
  • "I actually started criticizing the war in Iraq before (Obama) did."  — Hillary Clinton

Answer:  These statements are provably false.

Most often, politicians’ claims in speeches and ads aren’t totally true or false.  Instead, politicians take shortcuts with the facts or don't tell the full story.

Ask students to read the following - or share the information with the class.


Checking Our Facts

Sometimes the world of politics is very confusing. Politicians, political organizations, websites and political ads are all giving us conflicting information. Candidates running for office often simplify issues or use "talking points" to get their message to voters, skipping essential details.

Should we trust politicians when they make sweeping statements to make a point?

Media outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post and National Public Radio now regularly check the facts during electoral campaigns, like the 2016 presidential election campaign. Two other organizations - Politifact.com and Factcheck.org - fact-check the political sphere full-time.

Politifact, the Washington Post, and others employ a rating system to show viewers at a glance how true a statement is. For example, Politifact judged a charge from Donald Trump that fellow GOP candidate Marco Rubio has "the worst voting record there is today" is "Mostly True." (Rubio missed a third of votes, according to Politifact.)  Hillary Clinton's claim that "everyone knew" about her personal email server, earned her 2 "Pinocchios" (out of 4) from the Washington Post.  

As you might guess, the partial truths make it harder for voters to make judgments about the candidate in question. If you just look at the rating or reading the factcheck "headline," you will probably miss out on the important parts of the story:

  • What is the context of the statement?
  • Are there experts or studies that conflict?
  • Is the statement true but only in a narrow sense, and therefore misleading?
  • Is the statement literally false, but still make a valid larger point?
  • Was the statement a slip of the tongue, later corrected by the candidate?
  • Was a number cited almost correct?
  • Does the truth of a claim depend on a definition?

Take this example from Politifact (http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2015/sep/16/mike-huckabee/huckabee-us-giving-iran-equivalent-5-trillion/):

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee claims that under President Obama's plan to limit Iran's nuclear weapon program, the U.S. is giving Iran the equivalent of 5 trillion dollars.  

According to Politifact, there are some elements of truth to the seemingly wild statement:

  • Estimates of Iran's gain do in fact range from $50 billion to $150 billion.
  • Since Iran's economy is much smaller than the U.S. economy, the effect of $100 billion dollars on the Iranian economy would be similar to the effect of an additional $5 trillion on the U.S. economy.

There are also some elements of Huckabee’s statement that are extremely misleading:

  • Huckabee uses the word "giving" as if the U.S. is giving a gift to Iran. In fact, the money Iran will get already belongs to them: Huckabee is referring to the "unfreezing" of Iran’s foreign assets by the coalition of countries opposed to their nuclear program, which is part of the new agreement.
  • Even using the $100 million figure would be misleading, because it omits a large amount of money that will be subtracted to pay Iranian debts.

Politifact rates Huckabee's claim as "half-true." What do you think?


For discussion

  • Whose responsibility is it to check the facts in political speech?
  • Should newspapers, broadcast journalists, and online media simply report what politicians have said, or do they have the responsibility to examine the statements for accuracy?
  • Super-PACs, which are supposed to be independent of candidates’ campaigns, are notorious for questionable negative ads. Should the content of political advertising be regulated?
  • When you are eligible to vote, how much research are you likely to do before casting your vote?


Class activities

  • Break into small groups and examine a fact-check at Politifact or Factcheck.org. Report the findings to the class as a whole.
  • As an ongoing project during the 2016 presidential election, consider assigning groups of students to track the accuracy of particular candidates’ statements. Have each group report back to the class regularly, and discuss the findings.