Hillary Clinton’s private email server has been in the news for months now, with a renewed interest after FBI Director James Comey’s announcement he didn’t recommend charges against Clinton and, of course, the U.S. presidential election.
PolitiFact has been confirming and denying various claims about the emails and the election itself, but the political fact checking website caused confusion with a recent rating. Some readers of PolitiFact were surprised after the website seemed to have done an about face on a Half-True rating of one of Clinton’s statements about whether she transmitted classified e-mails. iMediaEthics contacted PolitiFact to learn what happened.
In a July 3 article, PolitiFact writer Lauren Carroll deemed Clinton’s statement that “she never received nor sent any material that was marked classified” through her private email server Half-True. That was based on the assumption that the emails were either not classified at the time, or were declassified before being sent.
Then Director Comey said in a July 5 statement that “110 e-mails in 52 e-mail chains […] contain[ed] classified information at the time they were sent or received” by Clinton.
While this new information clearly undermined Clinton’s claims, PolitiFact retained the Half-True rating. The original article was updated on July 5 to say that the rating would stand because PolitiFact ratings “are based on when a statement was made and on the information available at that time.”
“The editor who looked at it said we should stay with our policy and leave it,” PolitiFact editor, Angie Holan, told iMediaEthics in a phone call.
The update announcing that the rating would remain was not disclosed to readers, however.
In a subsequent editorial discussion, PolitiFact editors decided that the unusual situation necessitated a re-rating, Holan told iMediaEthiics.
“We had a big discussion about it at the time because it was such an unusual situation for us, but then another day went by and more editors wanted to weigh in, all what they thought of this,” Holan told iMediaEthics. “So, we had a second discussion, and at the end of that discussion … we just felt like the greater reader service was to rerate it.”
So PolitiFact issued a new rating that said Clinton’s claim was entirely false. That new rating was published on July 6, three days after the original rating. Part of the delay in updating was due to the long Fourth of July weekend.
When asked if PolitiFact had ever found itself in a similar situation, Holan told iMediaEthics, “Not like this, no, it was very unusual. I think that’s why we had to delay in saying it’s false, because it was such a weird situation.”
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The archive version begins with an editor’s note disclosing that the claim “has been re-rated due to new information.” The archived version moves the paragraph saying PolitiFact was standing by the original rating to the top of the article in italics.
In the new July 6 rating, PolitiFact explained why it changed the rating, saying that while they didn’t have the information FBI Director Comey had at that time, Clinton did have that information, which made her claim entirely False.
PolitiFact’s policy is structured against rerating claims when new information comes out. This is meant to address old claims that might have been true at the time, but with new information are no longer true. The FBI’s announcement, coming on the heels of PolitiFact’s rating, is an exception, Holan noted.
“It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to go back to stuff that’s years and years old and have to be updating the fact check all the time,” Holan told iMediaEthics. “But in this case, it just seemed like we needed to make an exception, so that’s what we did.”
Holan stressed to iMediaEthics how unusual a situation this was for PolitiFact to encounter, while defending the work fact checkers do.
“Every time we get these special situations, I think sometimes people want to jump on them and say, ‘this shows that fact checking isn’t that great of a form of journalism,’ and I think I would very much disagree with that,” Holan said.
She added, “Speaking just for myself, I still think fact checking is an extremely powerful form of journalism and we should be continuing it, even if sometimes you have tricky situations where we have to rerate things, and look at things again.”
UPDATE: 8/4/2016 10:32 AM EST Fixed hat tip links.