Angie Drobnic Holan is the editor of PolitiFact. After helping launch the site in 2007, she first served as a reporter and then as deputy editor. She was a member of the PolitiFact team that won the Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the 2008 election. She previously worked at newspapers in Florida, Alabama, Louisiana and New Mexico. PolitiFact originally launched in August 2007 to fact-check the presidential campaign and then expanded in January 2009 to fact-check members of Congress and the White House.
The Politic: Do you mind briefly describing how you first became interested in politics and political journalism?
Angie Holan: Oh gosh! I feel like I’ve always been interested in politics. My parents talked a lot about politics. I grew up in south Louisiana. The first presidential election I remember watching was Gerald Ford vs. Jimmy Carter. When I was a kid I would watch a tv show on PBS called the McLaughlin Group. It was kind of a precursor to some of the cable TV news shows where people would debate issues, and talk about elections, and try to guess what would happen next. I just always found politics very interesting. It had great story lines, and it clearly mattered in people’s lives… so I just always liked it.
Looking at the work you do today, how would you describe the way in which fact-checking differs from the political journalism that people are more familiar with?
Well, fact-checking is focused entirely on whether a statement that someone has made is accurate or not. So, fact checking tends to be very policy-oriented or oriented toward primary sources, documentation, eyewitness reporting. It tends to kind of steer away from horse race coverage or predictions, or how things look or don’t look. I find that fact checking tends to be a lot like political journalism, but the substance factor is turned way up… which is why I like it. Because I feel like when we are fact checking we are generally looking into important issues and trying to get to the bottom of them.
So, Neil Brown–who helped you launch the site back in 2007–said in an interview that “PolitiFact marries the power of old-fashioned, shoe-leather journalism with an extraordinary, powerful way to present it.” I’m curious about that powerful way in which PolitiFact presents information. What distinguishes the site from other news sources and gives it thatpower?
There’s a couple of different things that distinguish PolitiFact, and they are all a little bit different. Let me go through them. The first thing is that the stories follow a formula that is really straightforward, where we tell people what was said and try to determine whether it is true or not. Sometimes with political stories, it is not clear at first brush what the stories are about or where they are going to go. With our stories, there is not a lot of mystery about what we are doing. We are trying to be very straightforward about it. Then we have our rating system. So, people have an idea of where we are heading before we even start. I find the ratings to be a sort of a welcome mat for people– it kind of gives them a framework for where the fact check news article is going to take them, and people tend to like the ratings quite a bit. I mean, they have been criticized, and we can get into that separately if you would like. But among our readers, I think people come to PolitiFact in part because they enjoy the ratings.
Do you mind explaining this rating system, or how you rate presidential promises vs. the day-to-day comments that are made by politicians?
Sure…the promise tracking is sort of a separate project and for those we are looking at the promises again and again throughout the presidency and giving them different ratings depending on what events have unfolded. For the fact checks, we are looking for something that tends to be more static. We are looking at a statement that was made–“is it true, is it not true?”–which generally speaking shouldn’t change too much. Now there’s a wonderful section on our website, Principles of the Truth-O-Meter, that gets in depth about the different ratings for the promises and the fact check. And there are definitions for every promise. So, it gets quite detailed. We have a group of three editors to determine every rating, so it’s not just one person’s take on it. It goes through an editing process and frankly a committee process to have the ratings determined.
To segway on that a little bit, it’s clear that PolitiFact prides itself on being an independent group. With that in mind, how do you and your team work to eliminate biases while you are fact checking and reporting? What kind of backlash have you received in that regard?
Right… well the editing process helps a lot to eliminate bias. We have one reporter who digs into the fact check, but then we have three editors who read it. And we have a live discussion for every fact check– we talk amongst ourselves to determine whether someone can interpret the fact check differently, or whether the ratings can be perceived in a different way. When you get into the middle ratings (mostly false, half true, and mostly true), people can see it different ways: one person’s minor foothold is another person’s greatest distortion. So, we have sessions around those issues.
Now, fact checkers are subject to the same kinds of issues. We do two things–well, we do more than two things–but we do two things that I want to mention for public trust. First, we have a list of our sources with every fact check. If you go into a fact check on the right-hand rail [of the PolitiFact webpage], we list of all of our sources, and then we explain in detail how we came to our conclusion. I also wrote a recent column on why PolitiFact is not biased to try to answer some of the critique that we got during the latest election season. What we found was that when a campaign staffer does not like our fact check on their candidate, they usually do not argue the facts with us– they usually come straight at us and say that we are biased. So, I wrote this column in response to that. And the reason that they don’t come straight out and dispute the facts with us is because the fact checks are solid. We do make some mistakes like any other human beings, but most of our fact checks are really rock solid as far as the reporting goes. And yet, partisans want to attack us anyway.
So, in what ways has your work with PolitiFact during the Trump administration differed from the work that you and your team did back during the Obama administration starting in 2008?
The methodology has hardly changed at all. We go about the fact-checking in the same way. We look for primary sources, we do some intensive google searching, we do database searching, we talk to experts. In that sense, the fact checking is very similar. I would say that what has changed is the nature of the comments that are being made. I mean, Obama and Trump are very different people. Obama was a law professor– he was very meticulous. He was very careful about his speaking. He had a research staff. He would very seldom make public remarks that were not research-embedded. During interviews with journalists, he would make more mistakes speaking “off the cuff” like that. Donald Trump– totally different. He seems to speak without any kind of setting whatsoever, without a team. He doesn’t seem to be particularly concerned with research or documenting what he says, so he makes the same kind of mis-statements over and over again. Hence, he has gotten a number of negative ratings, not just from PolitiFact, but from all of the fact-checkers.
Looking at Trump’s rhetoric specifically, what is your opinion on the incredibly popular use of the term ‘fake news?’ and how has that changed your take on the work you do at PolitiFact?
It’s kind of a complicated question… For me, when I first heard the term ‘fake news,’ it was applied to these kinds of fictitious posts you see on Facebook. And that’s how we referred to fake news. Then, Donald Trump started applying the term to news about him that he did not like. And there’s a story I wrote called “The Media’s Definitions of Fake News vs. Donald Trump’s.” I think most people, when Trump says ‘fake news,’ they understand what he is trying to get at– that he is trying to say that he doesn’t like this particular news. That is totally different from the way fact checkers think of fake news.
I’ve read that your team is exploring fact-checking Facebook. How do you feel about that considering the site is known for spreading large amounts of misinformation?
Yeah, we have a formal partnership with Facebook, as do some of the other fact-checkers in the United States. They have worked with us to send us a feed of information that readers have flagged as being potentially false, and then we decide what to fact check. We fact check it, then we publish our findings, and then we log our findings into Facebook’s algorithm. And it’s been a really unique and I think productive partnership because Facebook is using technology that is really working with us in this way to help us identify false content. So, for all the negative publicity that Facebook has gotten, from my point of view as a fact-checker, this is a bright spot. And they are also compensating us for this work, and that money helps us do some of our other political journalism.
Would you say that the future outlook on Facebook’s efforts to limit that misinformation is positive? Or do you think that the volume of false information being spread is just so large that controlling it will be a more difficult process?
I think that Facebook has a couple of different types of misinformation problems. Fact-checkers are one piece of the solution, but I think that they [Facebook] are going to have to look at other solutions as well. And I think that there is some user responsibility. I mean, the false information doesn’t mysteriously spread… it spreads because people decide they want to share it. So, I mean, when it comes to the problem of misinformation both online and in the offline world, I think that everybody has to participate in finding a solution. It’s not just a problem for tech companies, or just a problem for fact-checkers, or just a problem for users. It’s a problem that I think involves everybody. The education system needs to be involved. There is a role for government in it. I just think that it is a societal problem and it needs a societal-wide solution.
So, what advice would you give to someone–a young student who is looking to increase their exposure to different news sources–not only through Facebook but also through other outlets? What advice would you give to them to help uproot some of the more outlandish opinions out there and find what’s true?
I have two pieces of advice. One is that when you come across a piece of information that is suspect, make sure that you do some lateral searching: look at other sources and see what people are saying about the topic so that you are not just using one source. With a lot of conspiracy theories or hoaxes, people just need to do a simple google search to see that it is not true. And it is developing that mental impulse to be a little bit skeptical of what you see online… I think that is the first thing.
The second thing is that I would encourage young people to develop a relationship with a news source that they consider credible and trustworthy and that has a verification process. So, for me, I like to read online news organizations that have long track records. I typically read The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today. I think that those are all very reputable news organizations. For TV, I like PBS NewsHour. But I think that people need to explore and come to their own relationship with a news source. Once you have that, it is really important to read regularly and not just think, “the information I need will come to me through social media or through a TV that I happen to walk by or see out of the corner of my eye.” I think that being an informed citizen requires a bit of a time investment, so that you are reading a complete news package every day. And as a sensible thing, that sounds tiring but it is worth it… because the studies show that people who have the most background knowledge or contextual knowledge about American politics are the least likely to be fooled by political hoaxes or political conspiracy theories.
I have one final question for you. Has the initial reason that you came on board in 2007 as a reporter at PolitiFact changed at all? And now, 11 years later as editor, what has kept you at PolitiFact?
Oh gosh! A lot of things have changed quite a bit. Twitter and Facebook were not strong forces when we started, so the whole online environment with social media has changed. Donald Trump is a candidate unlike one we have ever seen before, coming out of the world of New York real estate and MTV, so that is really different. What has kept me engaged is that the process of fact-checking itself is so fascinating– coming into work every day with just the job to find out what is true and what is not. And the other thing that has kept me engaged is the relationship we have with our readers. Before I came to PolitiFact, I worked on a lot of different types of journalism, but the kind of readers, emails, and feedback we get is just so positive. People email us and they say, “Thank you so much for what you are doing.” “It is so important.” “We need someone who just cares about the truth and who is just trying to figure out what the facts are.” I think the readers who are into us really love us because all we care about is finding out the truth and writing up reports. We don’t have an agenda, we don’t have a policy position, and so they feel as if they can come to us and trust us. And that is a very strong bond that we fact-checkers have with our readers.