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Fake news and fact-checking: Q&A with the editor of PolitiFact

The James L. Knight School of Communication invited Angie Drobnic Holan, editor of PolitiFact, to speak at Queens University of Charlotte on Tuesday, Jan. 23. Before her presentation, Ms. Holan discussed her work in a Facebook Live interview.

My name is Stephanie Bunao and I’m from Charlotte, North Carolina. I’m a double major here at Queens University, in journalism/digital media and sociology. Thank you so much for tuning in to our Facebook Live interview. I’m very pleased to have with me Angie Holan, who is the editor of PolitiFact. She was also the deputy editor of PolitiFact and a reporter for PolitiFact when they helped launch the site in 2007. She’s been with the Tampa Bay Times since 2005 and also worked in other newspapers in Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, and New Mexico. Thank you for watching, and thank you for being here.

And thanks for having me.

Could you explain what PolitiFact is and what you do for the organization?

PolitiFact is a news website. It was started by Florida’s largest newspaper, the Tampa Bay Times, and what we do is publish, everyday, fact-checking reports where we’re just looking at what the politicians say and we’re rating it for accuracy. We write long fact-check reports about why and what they said was true or not true, and then we issue our Truth-O-Meter rating. That can be true, mostly true, half true, mostly false, false, and our worst rating, Pants On Fire.  We’re just trying to have an engaging way to bring people the truth in politics so that they know which talking points are accurate and which ones are fudging or totally exaggerated.

From PolitiFact – Three ways to fight fake news

Slow down. Don’t panic. Question everything you read online, particularly from a news source you’re not familiar with. Don’t be so quick to share a post on Facebook, particularly if it confirms your beliefs about a person or topic. Google test. If it’s a sensational story, the mainstream media will be writing about it.

Speak with our wallets. Fake news websites are driven by advertising revenues from page views. Fake websites mimic real ones. Let’s change the model.

Support trusted information. We’re spending so much time working to stop ‘fake news.’ We need to put the same amount of energy into supporting real news.

So you launched the site in 2007. Was there ever a conversation or a specific moment where you thought we need more than just independent news organizations, we need this fact-checking website?

The site was founded by Bill Adair, who at the time was the Washington bureau chief, and he felt like there needed to be a lot more fact-checking in politics. There was a lot of concern in the 1980s, in the 1990s, and the 2000-2004 election that politicians and advocacy groups were just saying whatever they wanted about their opponents and they weren’t being corrected when they got the facts wrong. So it was definitely started out of this desire to correct the record and to hold politicians accountable in a way that traditional reporting would just report what they said. But when we were able to ascertain the facts we wanted to be able to say, ‘No that’s not true.’ It’s a deeper accountability, I guess. For fact-checking it’s a deeper accountability, it’s a different framework for doing political journalism because it really gets into the details of what makes a statement true or not. We fact-check things that we think are relevant, that we think would make the average person say, ‘Hmm, I wonder if that’s true.’

Now there’s so much being said in politics — the internet, cable television, talk radio, blogs, Twitter —  there’s no shortage of statements to fact-check. So we’ve been busier than ever.

I bet. And then also I wanted to ask, because I feel like as a society we are very, I guess, not sure exactly what a what a fact is anymore — we’re a little bit more skeptical. So how does PolitiFact define a fact?

Wow, that’s a great question. I don’t know that I’ve ever gotten that before. We would define a fact, I think, as something that is backed up by evidence where it’s either demonstrably provable, or there’s widespread acceptance, or there’s solid data. Now sometimes things are controversial. I don’t want to give anyone the wrong impression. Like, we get a lot of fan mail and a lot of hate mail…. Fact at the end of the day is just the best call of the independent journalists who fact-check that item and we hope that we give our readers enough information that they can make up their own minds. We don’t expect them to always agree with how we rate things. But we do think that once they read our report they’ll be better informed, can make their own decisions.

These fact checkers on your staff – did they come from independent newspapers?

Most of us come out of the newspaper journalism tradition, but not all of us. We have one reporter who comes from National Public Radio. We have another reporter who worked for the Armed Forces publications and has a law background. We have a varied, diverse staff in terms of their professional backgrounds. What we are looking for are people who are curious, who are very detail-oriented, who are open-minded, and willing to follow the facts wherever they go. We try not to have any preconceptions when we fact-check. We just want to look at the statement and think maybe it’s true or maybe it’s not, and look at it both ways.

We also had a chance to solicit some questions from Facebook. So thank you all for submitting your questions and I’ll ask a few of those now. Are there specific media outlets you use for research on topics used in the Truth-O-Meter?

That’s an interesting question. We look at a wide variety of media for the report kind of reporting we do. Maybe it’s because we are from a newspaper reporting background, we do use a number of newspapers that are reporting what’s happening on a daily

Basis. So just an example, we’ll look at The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, or USA Today. But we are also always trying to get to primary documents. So if, say, a news organization refers to a report, we will want to get the report for ourselves and look at the report for ourselves…. Every check is a little bit different.

Another question from Facebook: Seeing the bias and the media from both sides, is there an actual unbiased media outlet, or is such a source simply a utopian concept never to be seen?

Again, that’s interesting question. I think that media outlets have different approaches. PolitiFact — we’re aspiring to be an independent media outlet, so we’re not taking either political party side or either side of the political spectrum. Other media outlets have different perspectives and points of view. What I think is important is to find a media, a news organization, that adheres to standards of evidence, that is clear about what they report and how they report it. I urge people to find a news source that they think is credible so that they can follow it and have a relationship with that news source, whatever it is. It does seem like we are at a time where there’s more and more partisan media than ever, and I would urge people to try to have multiple news sources. Don’t just go to one news source. I mean, I love PolitiFact, but I see PolitiFact as like a vitamin that you take with your media diet. It’s not gonna be the only thing you consume. So people should have a couple of different sources so that they can they can look for themselves. I think there’s more responsibility on news consumers than ever before to look at their news and information sources to make sure that they’re really becoming a well-informed citizen.

I know you talked about fan mail and hate mail. Do you see a difference between partisan responses to PolitiFact?

Well, we get, you know, nobody likes it when their team is being criticized, so we get mail a lot of different ways. I think obviously there’s a kind of repeated slogan from the conservative side that when they see media reports they don’t like, that it’s liberal media or fake news. On the left, the criticism is a little different – like they accuse us of having false balance. You know, when we say the Democrats are wrong, they say, ‘Oh, you’re only doing that to try to show that you’re independent.’ I mean it gets really like a little bit mental, when people say why we’re wrong. If they’re not dealing with the evidence, my response is like, ‘Well you can say that we’re biased all you want, but tell me where the fact-check is wrong. Tell me what evidence we got wrong. Tell me where our logic went wrong. Because I think that’s a useful conversation to have about the actual report itself.

We had one Facebook question come in about fake news. What is the definition of fake news? People use the term in so many ways. Is it biased? Is it deliberately misleading? What are we actually talking about here?

You know, that’s such a great question. Some people think we should stop using the term ‘fake news.’ This is going to be the topic of my talk tonight. The fact-checkers’ definition of fake news traditionally has been, news that is intentionally fabricated to fool people. So things that you would see on social media, they really just have no basis in fact. An example would be President Barack Obama put himself on the $1 bill. That’s just totally wrong you can look at a dollar bill and see it’s not true. That is wrong. That’s the fact-checker’s definition of fake news. But lately, particularly from President Donald Trump, he’s been using the term fake news to just basically attack any media that is critical of him or his administration, and we’ve written a couple of reports on how this is a really odd turn of events for a president to be using this term this way against the media. Because as you know the media is part of the First Amendment, a free press. So I do think we have to be careful about how we use the term ‘fake news.’ Some people think we should use the term ‘false news’ when we’re talking about these fabricated reports. I’m still trying to make up my mind. So I’d be very interested in what other people think.

I know that when we talk about fake news, we sometimes look to social media, and I want to take a moment to kind of talk about social media. So with social media anyone can publish information now. The media is no longer the middleman. So how do you see this impacting society and your work at PolitiFact?

Right, anybody can publish, and when we were looking at these fake news sites or false news sites, they really do imitate the look and feel of legitimate news organizations to try to fool people. But there’s a huge difference between a group that just puts up any kind of report that they like, and professional news organizations that follow ethical guidelines of evidence and practices. So I do think people are still looking for news that is accurate, that’s credible. I think people want to find a new source they can follow. I was talking earlier about finding a new source you can follow because, like there’s a million different sources. I personally don’t think that having an attitude of, ‘Important news will find me’ — I don’t think that’s good enough to be an informed citizen. I think we need to develop our own information sources that we trust, and that we think do a good job of bringing the news about what’s going on with our government, with the world, so that we can be well-informed citizens and govern ourselves in a democracy.

On PolitiFact you write statements made by whoever’s in office at that time. Do you see a relationship between true or false news and approval ratings of those in office?

That’s a great question because I often have people saying things like, ‘Oh well, the politicians are lying more than ever, so fact-checking must not be working.’ And I would just gently push back against that. I do think that not all politicians will correct themselves when independent fact-checkers weigh in. But I do think the reports make a difference, especially to the audience that we’re trying to reach. We’re trying to reach people who are open-minded and are interested in evidence and logic. So I do think that’s the audience we’re trying to reach and engage. And I think we are reaching them now. Having said that, I don’t think that fact-checking is, or that politicians who speak accurately is the only thing that people use to decide their votes. Because I think people have a lot of different factors in mind when they’re deciding on who to vote for. Certainly for president, which is a highly symbolic office in our country, and even lower-tier offices. People kind of weigh all those factors, and I think fact-checking is one, and when they want to know how the politicians are doing on fact-checking, we hope they come get the light of fact.

I also see that PolitiFact also looks at promises. So how do you rate promises that an administration tries and then fails, or maybe there’s other factors that get in the way.

We do track campaign promises. Right now we’re tracking President Donald Trump’s promises on the Trump-O-Meter. We’re very heartless in our ratings because if they try and fail we give them promise broken. We treat Trump that way. We treated Obama that way — it’s the same, and it makes their fans a little upset. Because they say, ‘Oh, he tried.’ But we’re just rating outcomes. We just issued our first large report for President Trump, because he just had his first year in office, and about 15 percent of his promises are either promise kept or compromised. Another 45 percent are ‘in the works’ — that means like he’s he’s moving somewhat on them. And about 40 percent are either stalled or promise broken. That’s where either he’s forgotten about the promises, or Congress isn’t cooperating with him, or the courts have said, ‘No, you can’t do that,’ and people can go to our website and find a database of every promise he made and read a report on every single promise that we tracked.

I also remember seeing that it one of his lies was the biggest lie of the year — it was with the Russian interference. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Every year in December we look at all the things that we fact-check, and we say, ‘What is the most significant lie we fact-checked this year.’ One year it was lies about the Ebola virus. Another year it was Democrats saying that Republicans wanted to end Medicare. The previous year was Donald Trump saying that the Russia interference in the US election was a hoax. Now this is somewhat nuanced, because Trump likes to say ‘no collusion.’ As fact checkers we’re not saying whether there was or wasn’t collusion. That’s what Robert Mueller, the special counsel is looking into. What we were saying is that Trump has said many times that Russia didn’t interfere with the election and that’s not true. Both parties in Congress, members of both parties in Congress, have openly acknowledged that Russia tried to interfere in the 2016 election often against Hillary Clinton….

The technology companies say Russia did interfere in the 2016 election by hacking emails and data and then releasing it or putting posts on Facebook and Twitter. And then independent investigators in the intelligence community have said that Russia attempted to interfere with the election. So this was definitely happening. It wasn’t a hoax. Lately I’ve noticed, it seems like President Trump has stopped saying that the whole thing was a hoax and has gone back to just saying, ‘well there was no collusion.’ So for collusion, we’ll have to wait and see.  I mean so far, there were meetings. But you know collusions are really — that’s a very tricky topic — so as fact-checkers we’re willing to wait for the federal investigators to finish their work and see what they have to say.

We’ll also take this time to look a little bit more on Facebook…. Is it possible to determine if a comment comes from an authentic user or an internet bot or a troll?

That’s interesting. Now I haven’t gotten into that topic in-depth, but there are a lot of researchers out there who are trying to identify bots. Bots who aren’t real – they just kind of retweet stuff or churn it out. Trolls I guess I would define as people who are maliciously spreading information, real people…. We don’t put a whole lot of effort into this because we’re mostly just fact-checking the statements as they as they come. But I know some academics have studied this pretty closely. Just as a user on Twitter I’m often interested in who is commenting at me or sometimes insulting me. Are they real? What I do is go to the profile and look to see if they have a real picture, a real name, how many followers they have. And that’s how I make my judgments…. Twitter allows people to be anonymous…. I’m not a big fan of anonymous sources. We don’t use them at PolitiFact the anonymity on Twitter gives people, makes people much more free in their insults and their invective. On Facebook it’s a little bit more of a civil atmosphere because generally people have the real picture. It’s the real identity. So on Twitter, yes, there are bots and trolls and people need to be aware of them.

Other than identifying those different types of users, do you have any other advice or tips for those of us who are always on social media?

I tend to take Twitter as a supplement to my other news sources, especially The Associated Press. I have the AP app on my phone, The Washington Post app on my phone, and I just let go on Twitter to look for commentary or whatever. I think there’s all kinds of stuff that blows up on Twitter. Sometimes it’s not accurate or is exaggerated or whatever. Facebook is a little bit more curated, a little bit different. But I think people should always exercise caution with the social media. For Twitter I go in there to see just what people are chatting about…. Kind of what is the cocktail party conversation. Honestly I go on Facebook to see my friends and family. I’m not much of a news consumer myself on Facebook. Although PolitiFact has a Facebook page and we post all of our reports there…. Because of the confirmed identity and the way the network works it’s really hard to be an anonymous troll on Facebook.

We have another question from Facebook. How do we restore trust in the medium? For all Americans, it seems, many are only hearing what they want to hear.

Oh boy, that is so true. This is a question that people across the media are asking…. When people in the media get together for panels and discussions, we often talk about trust, so it’s very much on our minds. we are working on a couple of different strategies at PolitiFact. One that’s been with us since the very beginning, and that’s extreme transparency. In our fact-checking reports we go into detail of how we fact-check the report. So if you read a PolitiFact report, it starts out: ‘This person said this. We decided to fact-check it. We found this evidence and then this evidence. Then we talked to this person and this person and this person.’ We list all of our sources in the right-hand rail.

Transparency, we believe, is a huge part of public trust. We’re not just asking people to take our word for it. We’re giving them evidence so that they can see for themselves. I think we also are very transparent with our methods. We have a methodology on PolitiFact where we talk about exactly how we fact-check and then we’re working with other fact-checkers. There’s an international fact-checking network because there’s fact-checking around the world now, and the international fact-checking network has developed the code of principles that we signed on to. So it says we’re non-partisan. We fact-check both sides. We publicize all of our finances. We publish our methodology so we’re doing that as well. And then finally Politifact is also experimenting with new ways to build public trust. One of the things that we’ve been doing is, we’ve done a road show. One of the things that polls show is that people who voted for Donald Trump and who were ardent Trump supporters have the least trust in the media. So we decided to do a road show where we went to cities that voted for Trump, so that we could talk to Trump voters directly, tell them about our fact-checking. We’re not trying to convince them of anything. We just want to tell them, ‘hey we’re PolitiFact, we fact-check, here’s how we do our work.’ And we went to Mobile, Ala.; Tulsa, Okla.; and Charleston, W.Va. The conversations we had in-person were very positive. People were like, ‘Oh this is interesting,’ saying ‘Thank you for doing this, I will send you ideas.’ Because we don’t see fact-checking as anything that should be partisan. It should be for people of all political stripes. So we’re working on that. What we found is, when we got the conversation off of Twitter and into in-person, it went a lot better. So I think the question of media trust is a huge one. All news organizations need to grapple with it in different ways. But we do need to address it because there is a lack of public trust.

Thank you all for posting your questions on Facebook and thank you so much, Angie, for coming.

Thanks for having me.