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PolitiFact Editor On Finding Truth When Politicians Avoid It

Angie Holan / Twitter

When trying to sort out fact from fiction in the claims of politicians, many people today turn to “fact-checking” organizations for help. Prominent among such sources is PolitiFact, a website launched in 2007. 

You might know it for its “Truth-o-Meter” or it’s “Pants on Fire” ratings. Editor of PolitiFact Angie Drobnic Holan will speak Tuesday evening at Winthrop University. Her lecture is titled “Finding the Truth Among Competing Claims: PolitiFact’s Role in American Politics.” 

She spoke with "All Things Considered" host Mark Rumsey about the place of fact-checking in politics. She explains why facts aren't black or white, and she responds to critics who say PolitiFact is biased and left-leaning. 

Interview Highlights: 

PolitiFact's role in U.S. politics today

Our goal is to help sort out the truth in politics so that everyday people can have the information that they need to govern themselves in a democracy. We are journalists. We do not take positions on the issues and we don't have editorials. Our sole goal is to fact-check and give people authoritative, credible information and to tell them all the sources that we've found the information. 

On fact-checking information from the 2018 Midterm Election

This year we saw a lot of claims and counterclaims about immigration, about health care — specifically pre-existing conditions — and we also saw a lot of personal attacks. On immigration, we saw false claims about offering free benefits to illegal immigrants that were false. You may have heard that during the election — that illegal immigrants were given free benefits — but that was not true. 

Democrats kept saying that Republicans would not protect people from preexisting conditions and that it really depended on the candidate. Some of the Republican candidates very much wanted to protect pre-existing conditions — and others want government to stay out of health care. 

PolitiFact's ratings system and how it works

We created the ratings system to give people a sense of relative accuracy. We wanted people to know if something was a little bit wrong or a lot wrong. And a lot of readers really love this ratings system, but I still hear from people who say it's either true or false [and that] there can only be two ratings. We think there's more nuance and more grey in the world. 

The biggest obstacle fact-checkers face

There's so many things in need of fact-checking. It's a very fractured and diverse media environment. People hear things and sometimes they don't even know where they heard them. Did they see it on their phone? Was it on the TV? Did they see a newspaper? They're not sure if it's true or not. They're not even sure of the source. So with fact-checking, we have a lot of things to choose from and it's really us making a decision on the most important things to cover.