False equivalence is a form of logical fallacy in which two arguments are made to appear as if they are equally valid, when in fact they aren’t. Here is a prime example of how false equivalence in newspapers inadvertently misleads.
The Star Tribune editorial page carried a guest commentary on October 31, 2016. It was written by authors associated with the terrific nonpartisan, Pulitzer Prize-winning organization Politifact. So far, so good.
But the Star Tribune headlined the piece: “Politifact: The 10 whoppers of both leading presidential candidates.” This piece then lists ten false statements for Hillary Clinton and ten for Donald Trump. Ten and ten, presumably to appear “balanced.”
While Politifact’s 20 lies are all fair and well-documented cases, the overall impression given by the headline and commentary is that both candidates lie in equal measure. As someone who has conducted lots of focus groups in my career, I can almost guarantee you that a focus group of undecided voters — the coin of the realm eight days before the election — would overwhelmingly report “both candidates lie at about the same rate” as their central take-away.
The problem is, that’s not true. Politifact itself has found that the “both candidates lie in equal measure” assertion is a lie. A more complete look at Politifact’s full body of work finds that the two candidates are far from equivalent in their level of veracity.
This chart is not updated through the present, so an updated chart is needed. But the point is, either the Politifact authors or Star Tribune editors should have included a summary of the complete Politifact findings, to put the “ten whoppers” in proper context. Doing so would give Star Tribune readers what they deserve, a more clear and complete picture of the truth.
False equivalence is itself a type of lie that is muddying our democratic discourse. So what are citizens to do we do when the Lie Referees also, inadvertently, lie? The Star Tribune and Politifact are two organizations that I value and support, but this is not their finest hour.