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PolitiFact reporters face online harassment; we keep fact-checking anyway

Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan June 13, 2022

Fact-checking journalism has never been exactly easy. 

Our normal work days include overcoming a series of obstacles: We field questions from readers seeking the facts on topics large and small. We dig for hard-to-find information over the internet and track down experts to interview over the phone. We reach out to press secretaries and spokespeople, seeking their comments and insights. We write the fact-checks and take them through a rigorous editing process with many revisions. We list and link to all of our sources so readers can review our work for themselves. We energetically debate ratings on our Truth-O-Meter. 

After we publish, there’s still more debate. Some people agree with our findings, while others let us know exactly why they disagree. The most common criticism is that we were nitpickers, or that we missed the forest for the trees, or that we should have given it a different rating. Others claim we were biased all along, or that fact-checking itself makes no difference anyway.

These critiques and disagreements are not unreasonable. But lately, reasonable disagreement and even hard-charging criticism has evolved into something darker: personal criticism of PolitiFact journalists that can only be described as online harassment and intimidation. 

PolitiFact reporters, like so many others, have been targeted for performing basic practices of journalism. In the spirit of transparency, we wanted to share with our regular readers just a few examples from recent months. (We are purposefully not linking to the examples to avoid amplifying the messages and giving the harassers more attention.)

  • Reporters have alerted a press secretary that we’re writing about their boss and simply asked for comment. Within minutes, she’s published the email and slammed the reporters as incompetent, while trying to rally an online mob to attack the reporters — who are just doing their jobs.

  • A reporter interviewing a subject was recorded without her knowledge or consent, a potential crime. The interviewee then posted the recording as an example of the reporter’s ignorance, bias and general incompetence. Actually, the interview showed a civil and ordinary exchange where the reporter simply sought more information. 

  • Reporters have been harassed for their physical appearance, with repeated postings of their photos alongside disparaging comments. They’ve also seen their photos defaced and shared online in disturbing ways.

  • Reporters were singled out individually as being unfit for their jobs. They’ve been vilified for not having advanced credentials or specialized academic degrees. (Conversely, they’ve also been criticized as out-of-touch elites.) They’ve been told over and over that they should be fired for incompetence. In reality, their credentials are entirely appropriate for journalism, their reporting was factually valid, and the published fact-checks were solid and without error. For the record, they’re in zero danger of being fired. 

Yes, journalists have frequently been attacked in the course of American history. Here at PolitiFact, we’ve received hate mail ever since we started in 2007. What has been different in recent months — and the reason we’re writing this — is that the latest attacks have been intensely personalized and aimed at specific journalists, with the apparent intention of intimidating and isolating individual members of our team. 

The presumable end goal is that reporters will pull their punches or leave journalism altogether. The most viciously targeted staffers have been younger and people of color. But make no mistake, older white men with years in the business have been targeted for malicious harassment as well.

One of PolitiFact’s primary attackers of late has been Dan Bongino, a talk show host popular on social media. His chief talking points are conspiracy theories that the 2020 election was stolen and attacks on COVID-19 prevention measures such as masking. It’s not really a surprise that he hates fact-checkers; he’s said it’s an insult to be called a journalist. Bongino’s criticism of us have come after we fact-check his posts through Facebook’s third-party fact-checking program; that program works to reduce the influence of posts that include misinformation and conspiracy theories.  

Like many other online attackers, Bongino has misrepresented our findings, the scope of our reporting, and the points our fact-checks have made. He’s also falsely described corrections we’ve made after publication as proof of the illegitimacy of our work. The truth is that every reputable news organization makes corrections in order to ensure that their reports are as complete and accurate as possible. PolitiFact has a published corrections policy and will continue to make corrections as part of our normal work process.  

More concerningly, Bongino has egged on and been egged on by a more traditional figure: the press secretary for the governor of Florida. Those outside of Florida political circles may not have heard of Christina Pushaw. Rather than responding to journalists’ press inquiries in a standard manner, Pushaw will attack them on Twitter, urging online mobs to vilify things that are legitimate practices of journalism. She tells others not to respond to our requests for comment and has falsely suggested that reporters said things they didn’t. 

When the government itself tries to delegitimize journalists, it’s a warning sign that they may soon take more concrete steps against independent journalism. Yes, that would be unconstitutional, but we’ve seen many constitutional norms suffer in recent days.

The actions of these anti-journalism forces are deeply concerning to everyone who cares about the independent practice of fact-finding. Disparagement of individual journalists has become an occupational hazard for PolitiFact’s staff and among journalists at media organizations around the country. 

At PolitiFact, we’ve taken steps to help our journalists weather these unfair attacks with their sanity and dignity intact. We remind them that they have the support of our entire fact-checking organization and of our parent organization the Poynter Institute. We help them take breaks from social media to recharge and regroup. We connect them with peers who have suffered the same attacks and persevered. We take additional steps depending on the severity and specifics of each unique situation.

We’ve written this very report so that our readers and the world know that our journalists have our complete support, and that we proudly stand by their work. 

Our readers remain a huge source of solace in the face of online attacks. Many of them support us financially with monthly donations. They share our reports online and publicly comment that they appreciate our work. Others contact us directly with simple words of support sent via email or on social media. We are here to serve those who seek fact-based, civil expression. Disagreement is fine. Personal, ugly attacks are shameful — and won’t discourage us from our work. 

Our readers regularly tell us that they believe in what we’re doing. They say they appreciate the research we do to understand the reality of what is happening in our country, and that we help them navigate the nuances of consuming news. They tell us fact-checking is critical to a functioning democracy, and they appreciate that at PolitiFact, the truth matters. 

These are the ordinary Americans we’re fact-checking for. And no amount of online harassment or intimidation will stop us.

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PolitiFact reporters face online harassment; we keep fact-checking anyway