Readers query PolitiFact editors at Florida forum

Tampa Bay Times deputy managing editor for politics and business Amy Hollyfield, PolitiFact editor Angie Holan, executive director Aaron Sharockman and deputy editor Katie Sanders discuss fact-checking March 1 in St. Petersburg. | Boyzell Hosey, Times
Tampa Bay Times deputy managing editor for politics and business Amy Hollyfield, PolitiFact editor Angie Holan, executive director Aaron Sharockman and deputy editor Katie Sanders discuss fact-checking March 1 in St. Petersburg. | Boyzell Hosey, Times

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — A hyperbole-packed presidential primary season has highlighted the need for fact-checkers to perform "the messy work of democracy," PolitiFact editor Angie Holan told a packed forum on Super Tuesday.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning website’s leadership hosted a panel discussion for readers March 1, 2016, at the Palladium Theater at St. Petersburg College. A crowd of about 500 people got a peek into how PolitiFact chooses, researches and rates political statements.

The panel included Holan as well as Tampa Bay Times deputy managing editor for politics and business Amy Hollyfield, PolitiFact executive director Aaron Sharockman and deputy editor Katie Sanders. Times editor and vice president Neil Brown served as moderator.

HELP US RAISE $15,000 TO HIRE AN EXTRA FACT-CHECKER

The group detailed how the site combs media reports, public appearances, speeches and more to find claims that may sound dubious or interesting. A writer thoroughly reports on the subject using official documentation, expert interviews and detailed analysis to come to a conclusion. No anonymous sources are allowed, and reporters aim to find unbiased sources and do original research.

The reporter’s conclusion then becomes a suggested Truth-O-Meter rating, and that rating is reviewed by a trio of editors referred to as a "star chamber." If a majority of the chamber agrees on a ruling, it stands and is published on the site.

The group said PolitiFact’s process has made politicians aware they’re being held accountable. But that doesn’t mean PolitiFact plays favorites or is out to get anyone, Holan stressed.

"Our end goal is not to prosecute a case against politicians," she said. "Our end goal is to inform our readers, who are also voters."

Those voters had the opportunity to see the process in action, by choosing their own rating for a prior fact-check of Bernie Sanders. The panel presented a Sanders statement about the defense budget and were asked to vote via their smartphones on a rating both before and after discussing research and potential ratings.

Questions from the audience ranged from how the staff remains unbiased to how they address criticism to the logistics of researching claims even as traditional media outlets lose staff and resources.

PolitiFact itself is growing, expanding to partnerships with other media outlets in 17 states. Sharockman said the site also is having a global impact by launching the PolitiFact Global News Service in conjunction with Africa Check. Staffers have also worked with fact-checkers in Ukraine, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran, Russia and elsewhere.

The site also has partnered with a group called Beacon to conduct a fundraising campaign to hire a fact-checker for the presidential campaign. The goal is to raise $15,000 from 1,000 backers by April 10.

Projects like these illustrate how important fact-checkers like PolitiFact are not only to the United States, but countries across the world, Sharockman said.

"Around the world this is really spreading as a form of journalism, and I think it can have great impact in helping people understand better what is going on," he said. "Anyone can be a publisher of information. … We need these people around the world to help people sort out the picture."