As elections loom, Bridge is changing its approach to Michigan Truth Squad

Truth Squad is adjusting its format to more fully capture the nuance of Michigan political discourse.

As Michigan voters turn to the November elections, Bridge Magazine is changing its approach to Truth Squad, our fact-checking project aimed at helping readers ferret out the facts on state political races and issues.  

In the eight months since Bridge and The Center for Michigan revived Truth Squad for the fall campaigns, we’ve come to realize that our format did not always allow reporters to fully capture the nuance and, in some instances, the deviousness of political messaging in 2018.

Too often, we’ve found ourselves debating the accuracy of statements that, when taken individually, may be factual, but when strung together by savvy campaign consultants conveyed a message (often about an opponent) that was misleading or worse. The rating system we’ve used up until now (with descriptors such as “mostly accurate,” “half-accurate” and “mostly inaccurate”) was neither broad nor flexible enough to address such chicanery.   

As Lindsay VanHulle, part of Bridge’s four-person capitol bureau, put it in one of our internal discussions:

“It didn’t seem right to ding a campaign for using accurate facts, since that’s what we were checking, even if they presented a misleading conclusion. It also didn’t seem right to award a “half accurate” rating to something that was so intentionally misleading, simply because it had accurate facts.”

In our imperfect quest to be fair and ideologically agnostic, we sometimes got stuck in the thicket of incremental rating categories and lost sight of the bottomline verdict readers expect Truth Squad to render:

Is the candidate shooting straight with voters? Or misstating the facts?

Is this a statement voters can trust? Or was it crafted to mislead?

So we’ve reduced and simplified Truth Squad to three blunt rating categories going forward:

  • FAIR: The ad or statement is generally accurate and fairly and credibly presents the speaker’s position on the issue at hand.     
  • MISLEADING: While individual parts of the ad or statement may be accurate, it reaches a conclusion or leaves an impression about an issue or candidate that is misleading in important respects
  • FOUL: The ad or statement contains one or more material factual errors

In some instances, ads or statements by candidates or others do not lend themselves to a specific rating. Such as when candidates talk about controversies that would have nothing to do with their job duties. Or when candidates do not address the most critical issues facing Michigan in 2018. Expect Truth Squad to call out those tactics as well.

With every statewide office and all Michigan House and Senate seats up for grabs this November, this election promises to have a profound impact on Michigan’s future. You can help Truth Squad keep candidates and special interests honest by alerting us to false or misleading ads and rhetoric. Please send tips to Truth Squad at the staff contacts below.

Thank you for your loyal readership, your engagement in the democratic process, and your thoughtful criticism of our work.

David Zeman and Joel Kurth

Bridge Editors

David Zeman, Senior Editor

Joel Kurth, Managing Editor

Lindsay Vanhulle, Lansing Watchdog

Riley Beggin, Lansing Watchdog

Ron French, Senior writer, Education

Jim Malewitz, Environment

Mike Wilkinson, Database reporter

Chastity Pratt Dawsey, Detroit/Urban Affairs

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Thu, 09/06/2018 - 9:27am

Kudos! I like the new 3 buckets. I suspect the Misleading and Foul buckets will be overflowing.

Thu, 09/06/2018 - 10:03am

Hardest part of this process...getting this type of rating into the public view. The aggregate score on any particular candidate may also be something the public would like to know. Thanks for the work you're doing.

David Zeman, Br...
Thu, 09/06/2018 - 1:29pm

True enough. On your second point, because we've change the rating categories in the middle of campaign season it would be difficult to calculate an aggregate for the election year. But I see your point.
David Zeman
Bridge Editor

Thu, 09/06/2018 - 11:55am

Good move, thank you. In these times where the truth is being buried by lies we need the truth to emerge from the muck.

Michael Kiella, PhD
Thu, 09/06/2018 - 2:02pm

Thank you for continuing to improve this feature of Bridge. For my part, I have come to rely on the Truth Squad as a valuable tool in my personal decision making. Kudos!

Thu, 09/06/2018 - 5:06pm

If you like the old rating system, you will like the new one even better.
The weakness is relevance. Do the statements address the legal requirments or purpose of that office the candidates are running for. Whether the statement are accurate or misleading would provide little help to a voter if the topic being presented does not fit the prevue of the office.
I wonder what the purpose of the Truth Squad is, to play 'I Gotcha', to counter 'spin', or to create a better informed voter, they are not all the same. It would very informative to have include so connection to the role and authority the office has to what the 'Squad' is rating. The Secretary of State has different roles and responsibilities than a State Senator so what they talk about should not be rated the same, what can the Sec of State do about Flint cost of water while Legislators can back up their moaning about Flint suffer with taxpayer dollars.
I encourage the 'Truth Squad' to include a relevance to the office the candidate is seeking when a statement is being rated.

Michael Heath
Thu, 09/06/2018 - 7:23pm

There's an enormous difference between:
1) a promoted conclusion that's ultimately misleading because the facts offered, while true, are insufficiently framed and,
2) a promoted conclusion that's premised on a sufficiently framed set of facts.

From my perspective, just because the premises offered in Scenario 1 are accurate, the advocate is still lying if all credible conclusions would be categorically different with a fully framed set of relevant facts vs. a conveniently narrow set of factual premises.

It's my observation that very few Americans have even been trained in the basic structure of an argument and the critical thinking necessary to develop a cogent argument. That along with being trained to spot the fallacies used in defective arguments. That includes even those with a B.S. and/or graduate degrees.

So I'm happy to see Bridge take a step forward in moving beyond fact-checking the mere premises offered and now, also focus on the the credibilty of the conclusion offered.

Sun, 09/30/2018 - 5:49pm

Excellent thought.

Dot Potter Barnett
Sun, 09/09/2018 - 7:46am

Thanks for making the vetting process on Bridge clearer and more accurate. That should help a lot!

George Moroz
Mon, 09/10/2018 - 2:57pm

If more people studied logic (both formal and informal) in school, they would be better equipped to identify valid from invalid arguments, sound (valid arguments with true premises) from unsound arguments (valid arguments with factually false premises), and the whole range of informal fallacies committed in political and campaign speech.