As a talk-show host, one of the challenges I face is to stay on top of topics so that if a politician begins spewing out questionable information on air, I’ll be prepared to fact-check their claims live and not allow them a free pass. It’s not easy.
I need to prepare for that show. It requires a thorough understanding of specific topics, usually laws. I have to anticipate what they’re going to say to pull up any counterpoint or fact-check that quote on the spot. Sometimes I fail.
But that’s why journalists are leaning more and more toward a small group called Politifact, part of the Poynter Institute. These are former journalists dedicated to ensuring that all things said by a politician are either true or completely false.
We spoke with Politifact’s editor-in-chief, Angie Holan, about the launching of the fact-checking organization and some of the challenges they face in a time where truth is being rewritten by politicians and their followers.
TRS – How do you define what PolitiFact is and its mission? Also, how did it get started?
Angie Holan – Well, PolitiFact is a national politics fact-checking website. We started it in 2007 as a special project for a newspaper. Back then, it was the Saint Petersburg Times. Today it’s the Tampa Bay Times. And it was something that was the brainchild of a journalist named Bill Adair, who had a personal belief that there needed to be more fact-checking in political journalism. He recruited a team from the St Petersburg Times newsroom, of which I was a member. I worked in the news research library, and we started fact-checking the 2007 presidential primaries for the 2008 election that ended up as the contest between Barack Obama and John McCain. And we’ve been fact-checking ever since. So when people come to our site, they see speakers making claims. We’re rating the claims for truthfulness on our Truth-O-Meter, as we call it. So you can look at the list of things we fact-checked, look at the ratings, and quickly get a sense of relative accuracy. And our ratings are true, mostly true, half true, mostly false. False and pants on fire.
TRS – Obviously, as journalists, we all have to be fact-checkers. But what do you see in newsrooms? How are different organizations making sure they keep people accountable if they can’t have a dedicated fact-checker?
Angie Holan – I think journalists learn it as part of their skill set. I think it’s becoming a standard part of the journalist’s skill set that they know whatever the topic area they’re covering. They have to be keeping up with the fact checks of that topic area. It’s harder for a general assignment reporter since you’re given something different every day. Thanks to the Internet, it’s possible for a journalist trained in searching and curating content to go out on the Internet and search for the facts, work and evaluate it, and maybe look at some of the controversies around fact-checking. I’ve seen journalists grow in their sophistication in handling fact-based corrections as they interview. But it is really challenging. And one of the things that I really like to watch every presidential year is the moderators of the presidential debates because some of them have to deal with some very high-profile falsehoods, and they have to be ready on their feet to correct them. And it’s fascinating. If you watch enough of these, and I’ve watched them all since 2007, some moderators are superbly prepared. They must prepare for it the way you would prepare for, like the bar exam, because they know they seem to be ready for everything. I’ve noticed Jake Tapper of CNN, when he moderates debates, he spreads all these papers out on a desk in front of him. And I have to believe there are notes and fact checks there for him to be ready.
TRS – I think some politicians are a little bit easier sometimes because they say the same thing repeatedly, and it’s the party line, and you’ve heard enough interviews. So you can prepare to an extent. Sometimes they surprise you. You started the meter in the late aughts. Since then, what has been the response from the audience?
Angie Holan – The audience reaction has been fascinating. I think I hear a lot personally from people who feel passionately one way or another. I get regular emails from people who are like, thank you, PolitiFact. Thank you so much for what you’re doing. It’s so important. It’s the only thing that’s going to save democracy. Please keep doing what you’re doing. And I love those emails, obviously, but I never got emails like that when I was doing my standard journalism stories. People who appreciate fact-checking really have a personal commitment to truth-telling. It’s the same basic skills that all journalists use. But we’re using this intensive, fact-based format, and the audience does love it. In recent years we’ve become the focus of a lot of audience anger. People are like these fact-checkers; they’re not really umpires. They’re the liberal media. They’re trying to put their thumb on the scales, and worse than that, you’d be horrified by the profanity and emails I receive. So there is that. In addition to still fact-checking politicians, I should add that we fact-check a lot of social media claims and a lot of viral misinformation. And we, like other fact-checkers, are in a partnership with Facebook that uses our fact checks to screen false content. If you’re scrolling through your Facebook feed, you might see a grayed-out box that says independent fact-checkers. You have an audience who are not looking for fact-checking, and they didn’t particularly want to be fact-checked. And some of them become irate that fact-checkers have this role on social media.
TRS – What’s the state of our industry right now?
Angie Holan – It seems to be really in flux. The big players are doing best while the smaller newsrooms have struggled, especially local news. The print advertising model is busted. We’re in this online world where all the advertising revenue is controlled by platforms like Google and Facebook. That hurts news a lot. It hurts journalism. There’s still a lot of media and entertainment, but it’s hard journalism. There are still some bright spots because now I think we’re starting to see the growth and spread of nonprofit newsrooms. And I would put PolitiFact as part of this. We started at the newspaper, but now we’re owned by the Poynter Institute, and we are a self-sustaining nonprofit newsroom. And other nonprofit newsrooms are doing great work. We seem to be moving toward a national culture in ways that we didn’t see 30 or 40 years ago. So it’s kind of a perplexing time. When I looked back five years ago, I was astounded at all the change. And I wonder how many more changes we’ll see in the next five years.
TRS – What’s been the good of social media? How has it helped journalism?
Angie Holan – Well, I think it’s helped journalism research first, like to be able to go to social media and search for experts and profiles. And public opinion has been a game-changer for many journalists. It’s also an excellent distribution network. We can reach so many readers through social media and online without the cost of print distribution or some other traditional method of distribution. So it’s had a lot of positives.
TRS – What about the negatives? How does it hurt journalism?
Angie Holan – Well, nuanced or complicated things tend not to do well on social media. A Jonathan Haidt article appeared this year in the Atlantic about how the past ten years have been so dumb. He is a social psychologist, and he talks a lot about how social media, with its kind of reaction architecture, likes, retweets, and shares, that reaction architecture drives a lot of negative emotion. And I think that has hurt journalism. But there are also things going on in the country and politics that hurt the whole country. And journalists are one of the groups that suffer.
TRS – Is it on us as journalists to explain ourselves and what we do? Should we be on a PR campaign helping people understand what’s the news and fake news?
Angie Holan – I think we absolutely have to do PR for our industry because it feels like nobody else is going to do it right now. I think it’s also an ethical journalism practice to explain yourself. At PolitiFact, we have a long story on our Web site that explains all of our processes and how we do everything, determine the ratings, select items to fact check, handle corrections, and who owns us and where our money comes from. I just think that’s absolutely critical. And to this day, I’m still surprised by some of the most prominent media organizations in the country and how hard it is to find that kind of information. It’s not written in a compelling format. Sometimes it’s out of date, and it’s just like, why can’t these big media companies be more transparent with their audience online? I hate to say it, but some parts of our industry have a lot of arrogance and don’t feel like they need to explain themselves. I hope journalists are having a moment of humility in these past few years when we’ve been so attacked and vilified by some quarters that we need to be humble about what journalism can do. And we need to be humble about serving our audiences because I think journalism is essentially a service profession now.