City Weekly’s querulous ‘fact-check’ article is short on fact-checking

BardrinksIn response to a news release, with accompanying videos, from the LDS Church on Utah’s alcohol control policies, City Weekly published an article claiming to “fact check” the church statement. Reading through the article, the odd thing about it is that it didn’t really contain much fact checking. Rather, it reads more like a list of complaints about how the news release didn’t say what City Weekly wanted it to say. Let’s take City Weekly’s “fact checks” in turn.

“Fact check” No. 1: “Utah laws are ‘perhaps’ the reason why there are so few alcohol problems”

In one video, the church suggested that “perhaps the most important” factor in Utah’s low alcohol-related traffic deaths per capita are the state’s alcohol control laws. Note the word “perhaps,” suggesting one possibility or communicating that this is a statement of opinion.

Most reasonable people would read or hear that and realize that it was a suggestion or statement of opinion, not a definitive or factual statement. City Weekly, on the other hand, evidently felt compelled to “fact check” this statement, which amounted to providing a dissenting opinion from another organization…which of course is not fact-checking at all since opinion is not fact, no facts are being disputed, and no facts are being offered to correct any misstatement of fact. Maybe City Weekly wanted to remind people that there are various opinions on the question of why Utah’s alcohol-related traffic deaths per capita is so exceptional. But to call that “fact-checking” would be, ironically, factually inaccurate.

Fact check” No. 2: “Only jerks weird-shame Utah for its liquor laws”

The second complaint … sorry, “fact check” … that City Weekly wrote about was that the figure in a church video representing opposition to Utah’s alcohol laws did not have a face. The “fact check” is that “the voices calling for changes to Utah laws aren’t just faceless whiners b_____ about Utah’s liquor laws.” The article then went on to put faces, names, and/or affiliations to some of those “faceless whiners.”

Presumably, City Weekly would have the church video point out a specific person or group in its video, like City Weekly does in its “fact check.” However, this would also be a factually inaccurate representation of the “Zion Wall” opponents since it doesn’t fully represent all the voices opposing the policy. So this “fact check” is less about getting the facts straight than it is about complaining about how the video was done. Once again, not really fact-checking at all.

“Fact check” No. 3: “Research sorta maybe shows that Zion Walls protect children”

The third “fact check” – which actually starts to do some fact-checking for a change – regards the statement in a church video that “research shows that if alcohol is prevalent in everyday life, kids become accustomed to its presence and desensitized to its consumption, which can lead to early drinking among children.”

The fact is that there is plentiful peer-reviewed, scientifically credible and reproducible research that links a higher prevalence/observation of drinking behavior in the lives of children to children engaging in underage drinking, heavy drinking, and drinking generally. I should know, since I supplied the City Weekly reporter with the research he cites coming from Sutherland Institute. You can find a small portion of that research (the studies he received from Sutherland) here, here, here, here, here, here.

In other words, the church’s statement is completely factually accurate.

But that stubborn fact doesn’t stop the intrepid “fact checkers” at City Weekly, and in fact, they don’t fact check that statement at all. Instead, the article introduces the church’s statement, and then quickly moves on to fact check a different statement that does not appear in the church news release or its videos. That statement, not explicitly stated by City Weekly, is “studies show specifically that watching the mixing and preparation of drinks in restaurants leads to underage drinking.”

This may be an interesting research issue someday. It is certainly the only research issue that those who oppose the “Zion Wall” seem to care about. But it’s also nonsensical to get unusually worked up about it.

Let’s look at a hypothetical analogy to see why. There is plenty of evidence that gravitational forces exist between large objects in space, and no reasonable person questions it nowadays. Now pretend that someone or some group of people began complaining loudly about this idea in the context of planets and comets because “no studies exist showing that gravity exists between planets and comets.” Reasonable people would dismiss such complaints because we know gravitational forces exist between large objects in space, and without evidence suggesting otherwise it is a simple extension of logic to apply the idea specifically to comets and planets.

Similarly, we know from research and scientific study that the more children are exposed to drinking in their youth, the more likely they are to drink, drink heavily, and/or drink while they are underage. And it is a simple extension of logic to reasonably apply the idea to restaurants – “reasonably” meaning we are going to restrict some aspects of drinking in restaurants (mixing and pouring drinks), but not all aspects of drinking in restaurants (drinking an alcoholic beverage).

This becomes an even more basic extension of logic when we do have research studies that specifically show how a child’s exposure to alcohol marketing is linked to underage drinking, and when restaurant owners and bar owners are quoted in the media describing the mixing of drinks in terms of how it helps them sell alcohol – i.e., how it works as marketing. But, of course, some will continue to parse and pick apart any study – calling it “fact-checking” – so it can reinforce their complaints about Utah’s alcohol policies.

“Fact check” No. 4: “This is public safety, not proselytizing”

City Weekly’s final complaint about the church’s news release is that the church claims to be acting in the interest of public safety rather than pushing its doctrine on others. The “fact check” of this point comes when the article then asks why the church doesn’t push for stricter gun control laws in the name of public safety. Once again, asking a question is not really fact checking, but since the City Weekly article obviously really isn’t about fact checking, we’ll just leave it at that.

One obvious answer to this question – which is plain from past and current statements of church officials – is that the church takes positions on moral issues, not political ones. The news release itself makes this plain in two ways: in its video of Elder D. Todd Christofferson, and in its first paragraph when it states “the Church also believes strongly that alcohol policy in Utah is closely tied to the moral climate of the state.”

Is gun control a moral issue? Perhaps it is for some (maybe City Weekly can “fact check” that statement so they can give their opinion on why it is). But whether it is or not has nothing to do with the church’s statements on Utah’s alcohol policies. Most organizations who weigh in on policy and care about public safety do not weigh in on every policy that touches on public safety. They have specific priorities and resource/time constraints, among having to deal with other practical realities. To question an organization’s sincerity about their concern for public safety because they don’t represent public safety everywhere on everything is what most people would call a “cheap shot,” though at City Weekly it passes for “fact checking.”