Fact-Checking: PolitiFact’s Editor, Angie Holan, Talks About How PolitiFact Does Its Thing

As part of the background for my recent post on the media, I interviewed Angie Holan, the editor of PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize winning fact-checking site. I’m posting the portion of our discussion that touched on PolitiFact’s mission and process. I’ve found PolitiFact extremely useful as an objective fact-checking source. They do an excellent job of evaluating statements by politicians, pundits, and others for accuracy, transparently laying out the evidence. Over time, I’ve seen them provide evidence to both confirm the accuracy and call out the inaccuracies of controversial statements made by politicians and others, on both sides of the aisle.

Here are some useful links for more background:



The Inspired Rationalist: Let’s start with the big picture. What is PolitiFact’s mission?

Angie Holan: PolitiFact’s mission is to give people the information they need to govern themselves in a democracy. That’s the high-level answer. In practice, we fact-check statements that are made in American politics. We fact-check candidates, we fact-check elected officials, we fact-check advocacy groups and pundits, and we’re looking to fact-check topics that are in the news and things that would make people say, “I wonder if that’s true.”

Okay, that’s clear. How did PolitiFact get started?

We started in 2007 as a project, an election-year project in the Tampa Bay Times newsroom, which was then called the St. Petersburg Times. It’s Florida’s largest daily newspaper. The editors at the time were trying to think of a distinctive way to cover the 2008 election. The Washington bureau chief, Bill Adair, came up with the idea of a database-driven website that focused on fact-checking. And he pitched the newsroom leadership on this project, they liked the idea, and then we started publishing in August of 2007, and we’ve been publishing ever since.

How do you decide specifically what to fact-check?

We typically look at what is in the news and what people are talking about, and then we look for statements that we think would make the average person say, “I wonder if that’s true.” We fact-check statements that also sound provocative or perhaps are wrong. So, this week, for example, we’re fact-checking a lot of claims about immigration, because President Trump has been commenting on immigration on Twitter. And he’s also been commenting on Amazon, so we’re fact-checking that as well. We tend to fact-check the president quite a bit. We fact-checked Barack Obama regularly, and now we’re fact-checking Donald Trump regularly. So, we look first at politics, and [then] what’s in the news.

Do you fact-check and summarize high-interest issues that develop over time? The Benghazi attack and the aftermath, for example, was something where there were very different narratives pitched by the two political parties. 

Yeah, we fact-check specific claims and then, from time to time, we offer general overviews of different topics just depending on what is in the news. We’re basically trying to give everyday people the information that they need, and during election time we’re very election-oriented. So we look at claims that are small and particular, and we also look at claims that are kind of big-picture and tell a larger story.

Can you give us an overview of your fact-checking process and how you go about getting at the truth?

Once we decide a fact we’re going to check, the reporter starts with some general research. We try to always make contact with whoever made the statement, ask them for their evidence. And then the reporters do a deep dive. Our reporters have a lot of experience in finding experts, so they look for all the background information they can find, they look for any data or evidence that’s out there, and they contact experts to get a general sense of the accuracy of what we’re dealing with.

Are there instances where it’s hard to get at whether the statement was actually true or not? How do you address that?

Yes, sometimes we find that the statement isn’t as clear-cut as it seemed on first look, or sometimes we find that the data that would either support or refute the evidence is incomplete or just partial. So sometimes that influences the rating. Something that seems true but is not 100% certain, we might rate “mostly true” and we might say, “from the best evidence we have, this seems true, but there’s not 100% certainty around it.” Sometimes it would get a lower rating of half-true. And sometimes we won’t put it on the meter because it’s just too difficult to feel confidence around a rating.

[For our readers, the meter is the Truth-O-Meter, which is PolitiFact’s system for rating the accuracy of a statement. Here’s a description of PolitiFact’s process including an explanation of the Truth-O-Meter.]

Obviously, a big question these days is addressing how readers can know what to believe and what sources they can trust. So, in light of that, how do readers know that PolitiFact is executing its process without bias? How do you go about trying to ensure that?

Well, there’s a couple of things we do. The first thing is, we list all of our sources and we lay out in detail the evidence we’ve found, why we reached the conclusion we did. So we’re not asking people to just take our word for it. We’re independent journalists and we’ve been working in this space for 10 years now, so we have a track record that people can look to. And then finally, I think people can assess our credibility by just reading us over a period of time and seeing what they think for themselves.

Certainly, in the media environment we’re in now, nobody has to take anybody’s word for anything. And PolitiFact has its critics. We have people who say we’re either liberal and trying to serve liberal interests, and we have people who say we’re putting our thumb on the scale for Republicans and trying to make them look good. So I just encourage people to see for themselves and to read about our methods, because we’re trying to be independent journalists in a very partisan age. And I think most of the time we do a very good job of that. But people are free to form their own opinions about our work.

It’s always important to know who is behind an organization. So who owns PolitiFact and what is the source of your funding?

PolitiFact is owned by the nonprofit Poynter Institute. It’s an unusual nonprofit because it was set up by Nelson Poynter, who’s now deceased, to protect the independence of his newspaper, the St. Petersburg Times. So the nonprofit owns PolitiFact, and the nonprofit is controlled by an executive, Paul Tash, who’s a lifelong journalist, and Paul Tash gets to designate a successor. So it’s a really different ownership model, because the nonprofit Poynter Institute is the owner and it’s controlled by a journalist who will one day pass it on to another news person.

Could you tell us a little bit about the Poynter Institute: What’s it about? What’s its mission? What does it do?

The Poynter Institute’s mission is to support American journalism. It has a website where it writes about American journalism, it offers workshops for journalists to improve their craft, and it does other kinds of activities around promoting and supporting journalism.

PolitiFact gets revenue from several different funding streams. One is online advertising, another is from news organizations that want to use our content, like TV stations. We also provide services to news organizations, if they want us to fact-check something in particular. We’re fact-checking fake news on Facebook, and Facebook pays us for that. Another stream is reader contributions, we have a membership program called the Truth Squad that sends us contributions. And then finally we get grants from foundations that are typically devoted to supporting journalism or democracy, and we get that funding.

Now I should say, with the reader contributions and the grants, we have clauses in the grant contracts and we have a statement on our website that contributions do not influence what we choose to fact check or what ratings we set. We retain full control of that for the journalists who work at PolitiFact.

Do you disclose large contributions?

Yes, we do. We have a page on our webpage where we disclose all contributions over a thousand dollars. And that includes both individuals and foundations.

How big is your staff?

We have approximately 11 journalists who work with us right now, and I say approximately because we have a number of partners and so that’s not counting the partners. That’s just the PolitiFact staff under the Poynter Institute.

How did you get involved in this project? I know you have worked at a number of different places in your journalism career.

I was in the newsroom of the Tampa Bay Times at the time PolitiFact started, and most of my work involved data journalism and politics. When PolitiFact started, it just seemed a natural fit for me, so I joined the team that was being developed in the newsroom. And I’ve been with it ever since, so for 10 years now. I was a reporter on the team when we won the Pulitzer Prize, and then in October 2013 I was named Editor.

And I do want to mention, I also have a background in Library Science. When I was working in data journalism I was also finishing a Library Science degree, and that’s been enormously helpful for all the work that I do at PolitiFact.

What was the Pulitzer Prize for?

The Pulitzer Prize was for the fact-checking of the 2008 election, it was for national reporting.

Are there any particular challenges in executing the project of fact-checking that you’ve experienced over the years?

Well, there’ve been a few challenges, and they’re kind of different. The first one is, it’s been very difficult creating a sustainable business model for public service journalism, and I think that we finally are on a good, sustainable path. We were able to do this because the Tampa Bay Times supported us outright in our formative year. This year we became owned by the Poynter Institute, so we could be more of a national nonprofit newsroom like ProPublica. I don’t think we would have been able to have pursued that model from the start. So I think we have been very fortunate. But I think most people trying to do public accountability journalism face enormous challenges paying for the journalism.

So that’s been one challenge. The other challenge is the super partisan atmosphere that we work in. We’re often attacked as biased even though we try extremely hard to be independent and to show our work. We don’t want to take sides, but in this environment if you don’t take up a side, people will put you on the other side. It’s almost like they won’t let you claim independence. And there’s a lot of distrust of the media on top of that. So that makes it challenging as well. We’re always having to make sure that we are working at the highest level and being as scrupulous as possible with our fact-checking, because there’s so many people who are willing to criticize us, and criticize the entire enterprise of fact-checking, if we make any mistakes. And sometimes they criticize us anyway, when we don’t make mistakes.

So that’s been extremely challenging as well. But I think we meet the challenges. I don’t think they’re insurmountable challenges, they seem to just come with the territory right now.

I’m not surprised to hear that. Do you have to do anything different in your hiring process for journalists because of the heightened importance of executing what you do with absolute fairness and objectivity?

It’s interesting, because we look for people who show that they are independent thinkers with their body of work. We look for people who have strong backgrounds in reporting and writing, just like I think any newspaper editor would. But we’re definitely also looking at people’s social media accounts, and shying away from anybody who might be publicly expressing strong political opinions because it just doesn’t seem to go with our enterprise.

I don’t know that we’ve changed, but it seems like the rise of social media has been something that we now have to watch for with our job candidates. And I think because of the partisan atmosphere, a lot of people are more willing to express highly partisan views on social media.

Is that also true for professional journalists in general, journalists working at the Washington Post or the New York Times and other established and respected organizations?

People who are working professionally, I think, understand the limitations on social media. But I see a lot of student work, and I have some sympathy, because when you’re young, you’re often very opinionated.

I do want to say, one thing that I tell students when I speak to journalism groups, is that to be a journalist you have to be open-minded. If you feel like your own political opinions are really important to you and you have to express them, well, then you might want to look for a career in advocacy or some other field. But I think, right now, for journalists, it’s more important than ever to be open-minded and to not take sides. Some people disagree with that, but it’s essential for fact-checking work.

Fact-checking is a specialized niche. Are there a lot of journalists that are interested in careers in fact-checking?

I think there’s a lot of interest from journalists. It’s not every journalist’s cup of tea, but I think you could say that about any type of reporting. Journalism is becoming more and more specialized. So, reporting about crime for a newspaper is different from being a fact-checker from PolitiFact, and that’s different from being on TV. So the journalism jobs are varied. But we still have a lot of people who have interest in fact-checking because they like the orientation to the truth, they like how oriented it is towards public policy, they like that we’re looking at things that really matter. This isn’t gotcha journalism or horse race journalism, and a lot of people find that very attractive.