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Why the media shouldn’t care about Paul Ryan’s marathon time

I actually caught a real fish once. It was at Lake Holcombe, in north central Wisconsin, and it was big enough that a local fishing shop hung a picture of me holding it on its wall.

Even though it happened when I was eight years old, I still tell people about it. And although the photo proves that the fish was maybe only a foot long, over the years, it’s grown… a lot.

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The last time I told someone about it in a bar, it transformed from an average-sized smallmouth bass into something that could eat Jaws.

We all exaggerate our own accomplishments to get attention, and that’s precisely why I don’t think that Paul Ryan’s marathon time deserves the media coverage it’s gotten, especially since there are far larger things at play this election season.

One Google News search for Paul Ryan’s marathon time yields 24,100 results. By contrast, a search for “U.S. Government, drones,” gives you a little less than 10,000 results, and “Mitt Romney, Iran sanctions” yields about 8,600 results. Another heavily fact-checked claim, about Ryan’s assertion that he’s climbed 40 Colorado 14ers, is good for about 14,000 results.

Fact-checking has taken on as big of a role this election season as actually writing about policy, and according to an article in the Columbia Journalism Review, this phenomenon, while not new, has possibly gone a little far.

“Ryan’s marathon claims were news only because of who he is and the coverage that his convention speech attracted. No one is investigating whether other members of Congress are misstating, say, their high school sports exploits,” the article says.

I believe wholeheartedly that a huge function of journalists during election season is to verify and debunk some of the facts that candidates and their campaigns spew out during election season, but I also think that they need to be smart about it.

After all, what’s more important: The fact that Paul Ryan did what all of us have done, and exaggerated some of his accomplishments, or his budget plan?

For Runner’s World, the publication that initially debunked Ryan’s claims about his marathon time, it’s perfectly permissible to heavily play this story… because it’s a running magazine.

But for the Washington Post and the New York Times, you’d expect a little bit more selectivity in terms of what gets attention and what doesn’t. And both of these publications covered allegations about Ryan’s marathon time — at length.

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Just like most people tend to exaggerate their fishing stories, politicians will lie on the campaign trail… a lot. There’s nothing new about it, and it’s a journalist’s job to find the facts and debunk whatever exaggerations our public figures might make.

But in a world where newsrooms are seeing significant cutbacks in terms of resources, and space and time are becoming ever more crunched, it seems like it would better serve the electorate if journalists were a little bit more selective about what they devote their time and energy into giving attention to.

Politifact.com, a website owned by the Tampa Bay Times, does it right. It lists a series of statements made by various local and national politicians and their overall truth value.

While there’s no mention of Ryan’s marathon or peakbagging exploits in sight, it does verify President Barack Obama’s claims about adding half a million manufacturing jobs during his speech at the Democratic National Convention, and totally debunks a Democrat’s assertion that Republicans want to legalize rape.

It devotes time and energy into fact checking the issues, instead of what amounts to old fishing stories.

That’s the role that journalists should have, especially when they’re covering elections: To actually educate voters so that they can make an informed decision.

And hopefully for most voters, the truth about someone’s promises about the economy, foreign policy and civil rights issues matter more than whether or not they were completely honest about their marathon times.

Editor in Chief Allison Sylte is a senior journalism major. Her column appears Mondays in the Collegian. She can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @Allison Sylte.

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