The Principles of the Truth-O-Meter: PolitiFact’s methodology for independent fact-checking
Fact-checking journalism is the heart of PolitiFact. Our core principles are independence, transparency, fairness, thorough reporting and clear writing. The reason we publish is to give citizens the information they need to govern themselves in a democracy.
Since our launch in 2007, we’ve received many questions about how we choose facts to check, how we stay nonpartisan, how we go about fact-checking and other topics. This document attempts to answer those questions and many more.
How PolitiFact started
Our partner websites
Our ethics policy for PolitiFact journalists
How we choose claims to fact-check
Our on-the-record sourcing
How we determine Truth-O-Meter ratings
How we determine Flip-O-Meter ratings
How we track campaign promises
How we correct our mistakes
How to support us
How to contact us
PolitiFact started in 2007 as an election-year project of the Tampa Bay Times (then named the St. Petersburg Times), Florida’s largest daily newspaper.
From the beginning, PolitiFact focused on looking at specific statements made by politicians and rating them for accuracy. PolitiFact is run by the editors and journalists who make up the PolitiFact team. No one tells us what to write about or how to rate statements. We do so independently, using our news judgment.
PolitiFact is owned by the nonprofit Poynter Institute for Media Studies. PolitiFact had been owned by the Tampa Bay Times, but in 2018 direct ownership of PolitiFact was transferred from the Times to Poynter, which is the newspaper’s parent company. The move allows PolitiFact to function fully as not-for-profit national news organization.
The ties between the Poynter Institute and the Tampa Bay Times go back decades. The longtime owner of the Times was Nelson Poynter, whose father had bought the newspaper in 1912. Poynter championed independent journalism and wanted to ensure that the newspaper remain locally owned and protected from chain ownership. So upon his death in 1978, he left the newspaper not to his heirs, but to the school for journalists that now bears his name.
Nelson Poynter was also the founder of Congressional Quarterly, a news organization covering Congress in Washington, D.C., that the Poynter Institute owned until 2009. PolitiFact now continues the Poynter Institute’s historical connection to Washington-based political journalism.
Control of both the the Poynter Institute and the Tampa Bay Times lies with a single executive. Upon retirement, that leader picks a successor. Poynter himself picked Eugene Patterson, who picked Andrew Barnes, who picked the Times' current chairman and CEO, Paul Tash, a lifelong journalist.
PolitiFact has several companion websites. PolitiFact runs PunditFact, a site devoted to fact-checking talking heads, as well as PolitiFact Florida, aimed at state-level fact-checking. Other PolitiFact state sites are run by news organizations that have partnered with PolitiFact. The state sites follow the same principles as the national site.
Some of our current partners are newspapers, such as the Austin American-Statesman (part of GateHouse Media); and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (part of Gannett Co. Inc.). Our partners also include Capital Public Radio based in Sacramento, Calif., and VTdigger.org, an independent Vermont-based news website.
In the years following our start, PolitiFact relied primarily on financial support from the Tampa Bay Times newspaper. Today, we receive support from revenue generated through content partnerships, online advertising and grants. In 2017, PolitiFact launched a membership campaign called the Truth Squad to allow donations from readers and fans of fact-checking.
PolitiFact discloses any individual donation or grant in excess of $1,000. We also disclose organizations that contributed more than 5 percent of total PolitiFact revenues in the previous calendar year. (See the list.) PolitiFact does not accept donations from anonymous sources, political parties, elected officials or candidates seeking public office, or any other source we would consider a conflict of interest.
PolitiFact does not give donors, advertisers or grantmakers any influence over content or ratings. Our contracts and grant agreements have clauses asserting our editorial independence.
Decisions on coverage, what facts to check, and Truth-O-Meter ratings are determined solely by PolitiFact’s independent journalists.
PolitiFact seeks to present the true facts, unaffected by agenda or biases. Our journalists set their own opinions aside as they work to uphold principles of independence and fairness. (See a list of our current journalists and their biographies.)
As part of that effort, PolitiFact journalists avoid the public expression of political opinion and public involvement in the political process.
We don’t make political contributions or work on campaigns. We don’t sign online petitions, post yard signs, or participate in political marches.
We avoid expressing political views on social media. We do share news stories and other journalism, but we take care not to be seen as endorsing or opposing a political figure or position. We avoid snarky commentary.
We may participate in the political process as voters, because we also have responsibilities as individual citizens of the United States. But we keep our votes to ourselves as a matter of principle. Our goal is to be open-minded in all of our work.
This policy applies to full-time staffers, correspondents and interns. We avoid doing anything that compromises PolitiFact or our ability to do our jobs with independence and fairness.
Each day, PolitiFact journalists look for statements to fact-check. We read transcripts, speeches, news stories, press releases, and campaign brochures. We watch TV and scan social media. Readers send us suggestions via email to [email protected]; we often fact-check statements submitted by readers. Because we can't feasibly check all claims, we select the most newsworthy and significant ones.
In deciding which statements to check, we consider these questions:
• Is the statement rooted in a fact that is verifiable? We don’t check opinions, and we recognize that in the world of speechmaking and political rhetoric, there is license for hyperbole.
• Does the statement seem misleading or sound wrong?
• Is the statement significant? We avoid minor "gotchas" on claims that are obviously a slip of the tongue.
• Is the statement likely to be passed on and repeated by others?
• Would a typical person hear or read the statement and wonder: Is that true?
We select statements about topics that are in the news. Without keeping count, we try to select facts to check from both Democrats and Republicans. At the same time, we more often fact-check the party that holds power or people who repeatedly make attention-getting or misleading statements.
PolitiFact uses on-the-record interviews and publishes a list of sources with every fact-check. When possible, the list includes links to sources that are freely available, although some sources rely on paid subscriptions. The goal is to help readers judge for themselves whether they agree with the ruling.
We always contact or attempt to contact the person, website or organization that made the statement we are fact-checking.
Every fact-check is different, but generally speaking our reporting process includes the following: a review of what other fact-checkers have found previously; a thorough Google search; a search of online databases; consultation with a variety of experts; a review of publications and a final overall review of available evidence.
We emphasize primary sources and original documentation. We seek direct access to government reports, academic studies and other data. It’s not sufficient for us to get something second-hand. We don’t rely on what a campaign or elected official tells us -- we verify it independently.
In cases where PolitiFact must cite news reports from other media that rely on unnamed or unattributed sources (usually due to the extreme newsworthiness of the report), we note that we cannot independently verify their reporting.
The goal of the Truth-O-Meter is to reflect the relative accuracy of a statement. The meter has six ratings, in decreasing level of truthfulness:
TRUE – The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.
MOSTLY TRUE – The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.
HALF TRUE – The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.
MOSTLY FALSE – The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.
FALSE – The statement is not accurate.
PANTS ON FIRE – The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.
The burden of proof is on the speaker, and we rate statements based on the information known at the time the statement is made.
The reporter who researches and writes the fact-check suggests a rating when they turn in the report to an assigning editor. The editor and reporter review the report together, typically making clarifications and adding additional details. They come to agreement on the rating. Then, the assigning editor brings the rated fact-check to two additional editors.
The three editors and reporter then review the fact-check by discussing the following questions.
• Is the statement literally true?
• Is there another way to read the statement? Is the statement open to interpretation?
• Did the speaker provide evidence? Did the speaker prove the statement to be true?
• How have we handled similar statements in the past? What is PolitiFact’s jurisprudence?
The three editors then vote on the rating (two votes carry the decision), sometimes leaving it as the reporter suggested and sometimes changing it to a different rating. More edits are made; the report is then published.
The Flip-O-Meter rates an official's consistency on an issue. The rating is not making a value judgment about a politician who changes positions on an issue. Some voters appreciate politicians who are flexible and have the ability to compromise or adapt their positions to the wishes of their voters.
Still, accusations of shifting positions are common in politics, and we’ve found that an analysis of the shift and the degree of change can be informative.
The Flip-O-Meter has three ratings:
NO FLIP – No significant change in position.
HALF FLIP – A partial change in position.
FULL FLOP – A complete change in position.
The writing, editing and rating process for Flip-O-Meter reports is similar to the process for Truth-O-Meter fact-checks.
PolitiFact tracks campaign promises in order to inform readers how well elected officials carry out their agenda. We rate campaign promises based on verifiable outcomes, not on intentions or effort.
To create our promise meters, such as the Trump-O-Meter, we pore through speech transcripts, TV appearances, position papers and campaign websites looking for promises.
We define a promise as a prospective statement of an action or outcome that is verifiable. All of our promises list the source.
The promise meters have six ratings. The first three provide a broad picture of whether the official is making progress; the final three indicate whether he or she kept the promise.
NOT YET RATED — Every promise begins at this level and retains this rating until we see evidence of progress — or evidence that the promise has stalled.
IN THE WORKS — This indicates the promise has been proposed or is being considered.
STALLED — There is no movement on the promise, perhaps because of limitations on money, opposition from lawmakers or a shift in priorities.
COMPROMISE — Promises earn this rating when they accomplish substantially less than the official’s original statement but when there is still a significant accomplishment that is consistent with the goal of his original promise.
PROMISE KEPT — Promises earn this rating when the original promise is mostly or completely fulfilled.
PROMISE BROKEN – The promise has not been fulfilled. This could occur because of inaction by the executive or lack of support from the legislative branch or other group that was critical for the promise to be fulfilled. A Promise Broken rating does not necessarily mean that the executive failed to advocate for the policy.
Promise ratings change when circumstances change. For some promises, it's possible that the status could initially go to In the Works, but then move back to Stalled if we decide the proposal has hit a lull, and then go back to the In the Works. Similarly, a promise could be rated Promise Kept, but if the official reversed course, the promise would then be rated Promise Broken.
Mistakes happen. PolitiFact corrects errors as quickly as possible and with appropriate transparency.
Major errors of fact – A serious error that results in a new rating or otherwise changes the general outlook of the fact-check receives a mark of correction at the top of the fact-check.
The text of the fact-check is updated with the new information, and an archived copy of the previous fact-check is preserved and linked to. Additionally, the link text for the item is marked as updated. Corrected fact-checks receive a tag of "Corrections and updates."
Errors of fact – Errors of fact that do not impact the rating or do not change the general outlook of the fact-check receive a mark of correction at the bottom of the fact-check.
The text of the fact-check is updated with the new information. The correction states the correct information that has been added to the report. If necessary for clarity, it repeats the incorrect information. Corrected fact-checks receive a tag of "Corrections and updates."
Typos, grammatical errors, misspellings – We correct typos, grammatical errors, misspellings, transpositions and other small errors without a mark of correction or tag and as soon as they are brought to our attention.
Updates – From time to time, we add additional information to stories and fact-checks after they’ve published, not as a correction but as a service to readers. Examples include a response from the speaker we received after publication (that did not change the conclusion of the report), or breaking news after publication that is relevant to the check. Updates can be made parenthetically within the text with a date, or at the end of the report. Updated fact-checks receive a tag of "Corrections and updates."
Explanatory editor’s notes – Sometimes we alert readers to other information that would be helpful, without changing the original report, such as an outpouring of reader response. In those cases, we post an editor’s note, either at the top or the bottom of the report, as appropriate. Editor’s notes are sometimes used on initial publication to explain a special report’s purpose or outlook.
Reader contributions are one of our main sources of funding. We ask readers to support our journalism by joining the Truth Squad, a membership group for those who want to see our fact-checking work continue and grow. Truth Squad members help ensure that our content remains free to all readers.
Truth Squad members receive regular communications from the PolitiFact team, as well as perks such as Pants on Fire stickers.
Finally, readers can support us by sharing our work with friends and family.
The best way to contact us for general questions, complaints, praise and ideas for things to fact-check is through our email account, trutho[email protected].
For questions about our Truth Squad membership program, the email is [email protected].
You will find contact information for individual journalists, both email addresses and phone numbers, on their staff profiles. See a list of our current journalists and their biographies.
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Last updated Nov. 15, 2019