Public Assets Institute > Blog > Data can’t be a matter of opinion

Data can’t be a matter of opinion

Readers of vtdigger, Vermont’s online news organization, were probably surprised to read over the weekend that the Legislature “forced nearly $100 million in new property taxes on Vermonters” to pay for education next year. Unfortunately, the editors were not surprised. If they had been, they might have done some fact checking to make sure the data in the commentary published last Saturday were accurate.  They weren’t.  Not even close.

The claim about the property tax increase came from Dustin Degree, a former member of the Vermont House who is running for the state Senate this year. The thrust of Mr. Degree’s commentary was about what he called a “crisis of affordability.” He pledged to support working families and reduce barriers to job creation—well within the bounds of fair commentary and the kind of statement voters expect to hear from a candidate for political office.

But commentaries shouldn’t be fact-free zones, and news organizations have to apply the same standards of accuracy to opinion pieces that they do to regular news reporting. Mr. Degree’s claim about increased property taxes was wildly off the mark. Information readily available at the Joint Fiscal Office website shows that education property taxes are projected to increase $49.5 million for fiscal 2015. And not all of the increase will be paid by Vermonters. The correct total also includes taxes that will be paid by large corporations, such as IBM and Green Mountain Power, as well as second home owners from other states.

Mr. Degree may well conclude that any increase is too much. And that’s fair commentary, too. But he shouldn’t be telling voters that property taxes on Vermonters are increasing $100 million when the real increase is less than half that amount. And news organizations have an obligation to their readers and viewers to fact-check objective data that appear in opinion pieces.

Last week’s filing deadline for candidates marked the official beginning of the campaign season. There will be many more commentaries and op-eds written and broadcast between now and November, and Vermonters can look forward to diversity of views. However, candidates’ opinions need to be grounded in fact, and editors should ensure that they are.

Posted by Jack Hoffman on June 16, 2014 at 5:12 pm

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