How the Basic Journalism of PolitiFact Has Changed the Political Landscape

In 2007, with President George W. Bush’s second term as president coming to an end and Vice President Richard Cheney not aiming to succeed him, open races for both Democratic and Republican nominations for president were developing. Bill Adair thought it was time to bring more fact-checking into American political journalism.  Adair, then a Washington-based journalist with the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) began a project that the newspaper called Politifact.

The idea took off and, more than a decade later, PolitiFact and other political fact-checking efforts have become an important part of the national journalism landscape. PolitiFact is now an independent non-profit organization. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel became a partner with PolitiFact in 2010, ahead of the election that year in which Republican Scott Walker defeated Democrat Tom Barrett for governor, and continues to run PolitiFact pieces, with either national or local focuses, almost every day.

In an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program Tuesday at Marquette Law School, Angie Drobnic Holan, now the editor of PolitiFact and a part of its team since the start, and Tom Kertscher, who has worked on the Journal Sentinel’s PolitiFact team since its start, described the goals of what they do in terms core journalistic values.

Holan said the PolitiFact mission has not changed since its start: “To give people the information they need to govern themselves in a democracy.” And the ethics of what PolitiFact does are built on “truth, accuracy, transparency, thorough reporting, and clear writing.”

Kertscher said the Journal Sentinel has done 1,400 fact checks since 2010. He said that when he first considered applying for the job, he talked to journalists elsewhere involved in similar efforts and was told he should expect it to be tough but satisfying work that would require a thick skin. He said that turned out to be true.

Holan and Kertscher described the process of selecting things to check – most often, statements from politicians that might make people wonder if what they said was true – and researching the facts that underlie (or don’t) those statements. The process is non-partisan and thorough, with three editors reviewing the results before they are published. In general, the editors vote on how to rate an item, ranging from “true” to “pants on fire.” Statements must be “fact checkable,” which means things that are, for example, only matters of opinion aren’t candidates.

Holan said that more complaints come from the right than the left about whether PolitiFact is fair. She suggested that is connected to more people on the right believing the news media are generally liberal. But she expressed confidence in the non-partisan record of PolitiFact. “We do want to be fact checkers for anybody who wants to learn the facts,” she said. “I believe we’re very even-handed.”

Kertscher said he doesn’t see much difference in the amount of criticism from the left and right that the Wisconsin PolitiFact work gets. “I think it’s pretty much equal dislike,” he said.

Neither Holan nor Kertscher claimed to influence the outcome of elections, but both said there are reasons to think the rise of PolitiFact has made many politicians more careful about the accuracy of what they say.

While a lot of partisan expression is put in pretty strong, even harsh, terms, particularly online, when you talk to people in person and focus on the facts, “the temperature goes down,” Kertscher said. “We really are after accuracy and truth and we’re not on one side or the other,” he said.

To watch video of the one-hour program, click here.



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