Finding the Truth in Today’s Politics: An Interview with Angie Drobnic Holan Editor of PolitiFact
By: Rebecca Hill
Libraries have always been the number one source for facts. So, when one of the first fact-checkers for Time magazine, Nancy Ford, needed to verify dates, names, and facts for TIME magazine articles in 1923, she turned to the New York Public Library public information desk as her primary source of information.
In 1923, fact-checking was a relatively new endeavor, but in recent years, independent fact-checking organizations like the Poynter Institute’s PolitiFact have started scrutinizing the veracity of politicians’ statements, trying to get to the truth.
Famous for their “Pants on Fire” meter, PolitiFact started in 2007 in the newsroom of the Tampa Bay Times. But in 2018, the Poynter Institute for Media Studies assumed PolitiFact where it now serves as an independent, nonpartisan fact-checking organization under editor Angie Drobnic Holan.
Holan didn’t start as a fact-checker. She was a librarian. After getting her Masters in librarianship from the University of South Florida School of Information, she curated the news libraries of the Tampa Tribune and the Tampa Bay Times. Transferring to PolitiFact in 2007, she is now the editor. I spoke with Holan about PolitiFact and her experience as a fact-checker.
RH: What would you tell librarians about PolitiFact, and how would you tell them to use it?
AH: Librarians understand how vital the prominence of knowledge is. PolitiFact is a free, available service and is an excellent first place to check for political information. At PolitiFact, we are fact-checking and providing the sources for our fact-checks. We hope that librarians will share this information with their patrons so they can formulate their own decisions.
RH: Your website states that PolitiFact is nonpartisan. What does that mean to your work?
AH: Being nonpartisan means that we don’t have a stake in a party or politician and whether they are right or wrong. We take the side of the truth. So, we are always looking for what is and what is not backed up by facts and evidence. As far as our nonpartisanship and our attempts to minimize bias, the most scrutiny we get is from readers and the public. Our response to this scrutiny is that we fact-check things that would make the average person wonder if it’s true or not. We also fact check incorrect items. So, if someone makes frequent inaccurate statements, then we are going to fact-check them more. (Author’s note: Check PolitiFact’s Principles.)
RH: As the editor, how do you monitor fact-checking? What’s your process?
AH: When we assign and edit the fact-checks, three editors are required to scrutinize that fact check to make sure that we didn’t miss anything and that we investigated the question thoroughly. Most of our journalists are trained reporters, so they know that when they come to work, that must set aside any personal opinions they have and investigate all sides impartially. Every check can be a little bit different. Many of the fact checks we rate are straightforward. But not everything can be explained in clear cut language because some things are muddled. Some fact checks are tricky, so we have categories where we can designate them as half-true or mostly true.
But with our fact checks, we lay out all our reasoning and include all our sources. We want people to be able to replicate our findings.
RH: What resources do you turn to most frequently to determine the facts?
For fact-checks about the economy or unemployment rate, we turn to economists and government statistics as resources. Sometimes for fact-checks about a candidate’s biography, we will examine historical files or past interviews or talk to people who were eyewitnesses. Often, we see photos that have been taken out of context, so we try to find the original publication of the photo. We are fact-checking information on the internet. For example, Facebook posts a program for third-party fact-checkers, so we fact-check fabricated posts that people flag on Facebook.
RH: Do you have people question your sources?
AH: They question our fact checks and sometimes our sources, but the questioning of the fact check is interesting. Whenever we get a legitimate criticism where we made an error, we try to correct it quickly.
We also get other criticisms which I find frequently break down into a couple of different buckets. One type of criticism comes from conservatives who say that we are the liberal media, and no one can believe anything you say, or that we are always picking on President Trump. So, we find that it is not necessarily about the fact check, but that they disagreed with the fact check results.
On the Democratic side, we will hear things like this is just a minor error, but you are picking on the left because you are trying to make the two sides equal so you can put yourself in as an independent journalist, something called false equivalence.
Generally, I reject both criticisms because I feel like we put a lot of effort into investigating and serving an audience that just wants to know the truth. Right now, because political statements can often be untruthful, a lot of people find the current world difficult to navigate. Mostly, I believe that much of our audience doesn’t care how PolitiFact rates their favorite or least favorite politician; they just want to know the facts.
R: How do your fact-checkers feel about the constant questioning of their objectivity? Does it push them to find the truth more?
AH: The constant question, while not fun, is part of our business. In a time when our readers are telling us that they find everything much more complicated and that they are being lied to, I do think that it does give us a sense of mission.
RH: Is PolitiFact looking for the facts and the truth?
AH: We start with the facts and hopefully, correct facts and help folks have a greater understanding about larger truths, but there are limits to fact-checking. We can’t answer questions about ethics and values, and sometimes these are the underlying dynamics of public discussions. At PolitiFact, we are trying to correct the misstated or incorrect facts because if you don’t have accurate facts, any conversation becomes impossible. Despite this, even with the correct facts, people can still disagree vehemently about public policy or government actions.
RH: With all the claims of bias and polarization today, how has this impacted your ability to determine the facts? Do you scratch your head about the person who refuses to hear the facts?
AH: I think that politics has displaced people’s identities. For instance, before people would identify as residents of their town or as fans of local sports teams. Now people are identifying more with their political groups. Instead of viewing issues in an open-minded way and using evidence to evaluate them, people turn to what their group thinks, and ultimately, this drives partisanship and polarization today. And right now, in 2019, it seems like a pretty entrenched attitude.
RH: What do you hear from readers?
AH: We get lots of fan mail from people who tell us that they appreciate our fact-checking and our independence. In the past, I worked as a newspaper librarian and reporter before PolitiFact, but I never received the kind of reader emails that I get now from readers who are passionate about PolitiFact. They care about asserting the facts for fact’s sakes. So, there are still people who care about the truth and believe that it is more important than their party or winning an argument.
RH: How is PolitiFact gearing up for the 2020 elections where we are expecting more influence by foreign entities?
AH: We are following the campaign right now. We fact-checked the recent June debates and have written profiles of all the candidates. We will fact check the campaign as it goes along, so we have a good body of fact-checks to rely on. We are also working with Facebook on fact-checking content on Facebook.
RH: How can librarians support the facts and truth in their daily work?
AH: Librarians today are doing significant work. I believe that they should think about how they can bring these values into their day to day work and programming. So, they should have as many conversations or programs that they can have with people about the importance of evidence, data, and underlying facts to people’s opinions. I also think that librarians can’t remind people enough that people are entitled to their opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts. Someone asserting something doesn’t mean it’s always true. We must look at the underlying evidence, the applicable science, and remind people that just because it’s on the Internet doesn’t make it accurate information.
I have done a lot of public speaking at libraries and have found that libraries who bring the public together for rich public programming to bring people together for public conversations are incredibly inspiring. Libraries can do this on a smaller scale where they can have the community coming together to talk about things that matter to them. If libraries are not doing this, I will urge them to do it.
RH: What do you say to a librarian who says those kinds of things will spark controversy?
AH: I have a lot of sympathy for that position. So, I would look for issues where you can move people off their talking points. We must be very creative and savvy in searching for topics and venues that foster new conversations that are open-minded rather than igniting stereotypical conversations.
Rebecca Hill is a freelance writer who writes on libraries, literacy, science education and other topics for a variety of online and national magazines. Currently she writes a science education column for VOYA magazine. She holds a MLS from Indiana University Purdue University and JD from Valparaiso University. Her interest in intellectual freedom has been peaked by the increase in technology via artificial intelligence and social media. Currently she serves on the Indiana Library Federation Board of Directors and the Purdue University Libraries Dean’s Council. She is also on the Library Board of Trustees for her local library. A long time advocate of libraries, reading, writing and all things words are her passion.