Thursday, September 6, 2012

Looking Beyond the Rhetoric: Finding Non-Partisan Political Information

 “A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.” - Mark Twain

Actually, that's a lie itself:  Mark Twain didn't really say it.  Most people who have heard the quotation think he did, but it really comes from a British Minister named C.H. Spurgeon.  The fact that it is so commonly attributed to the wrong person just shows how true the quotation really is.  It's a lot easier to spread a lie than it is to figure out what's really true.

As a librarian, I know this all too well.  One of the most important parts of my job is helping people find accurate, unbiased information. Needless to say, this is a real challenge when it comes to politics. Any time an issue is politically-charged, people start trying their best to convince everyone their stance is the right one. The more opposing interests there are, the more spin there will be, which makes it harder and harder to get a clear view of the real facts and issues.

In a situation like this, it's very important to find information sources that strive to be nonpartisan and fact-based. It's doubtful that any observer can be completely unbiased, but there are some sources that do a very good job of walking the tightrope between one side and the other. One of these is a website called, which is run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center; a non-partisan organization dedicated to providing voters with accurate information about politics and politicians. FactCheck investigates claims by politicians on both sides of the aisles, and points it out when they have their facts wrong.

There is also a column at the Washington Post called The Fact Checker, written by Glenn Kessler. Kessler gives claims a rating of between one and four "Pinnochios", with four being awarded for the biggest whoppers.  Claims found to be completely true get a "Geppetto Checkmark."  These don't seem to be given out very often.

Another good fact-checking site is Run by the St. Petersburg Times, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for its fact-checking coverage of the 2008 elections. PolitiFact rates the truthfulness (or lack thereof) of political statements by showing a reading on their "Truth-O-Meter." Statements are rated True, Mostly True, Half True, Barely True, and False. Statements judged outrageously false are slapped with a rating of "Pants on Fire". also gives the sources used in researching claims, and explains their rationale for the rating given.

If you're an iPhone user, you may want to check out the SuperPAC app, which can identify political ads on TV by sound, and then direct you to sites like and

Finally, is a slightly different kind of fact-checking site.  This site started out investigating the origins and truth of urban legends.  However, as more and more people got on the internet, false rumors about political figures came to be circulated widely through email.  The stories would change and grow over time, much like urban legends.  So, became a fact checking site for political rumors.  It's gotten so well known that some of these email rumors, even though they're false, will claim in the email that they have been found true by  Apparently, this keeps people from actually checking, and that helps keep the rumor going.  So it's probably a good idea to check Snopes, especially if the email suggests that you don't need to.

Of course, when you are talking about fact checking, the question that eventually comes up is:  who will fact check the fact checkers?  In other words, how do we know the fact checking sites aren't biased?  That's tough, and all of the sites listed above have been accused of bias, often by both sides of the political spectrum (which suggests they can't be that biased).  Perhaps the safest bet, if you really want to evaluate a claim or rumor, is to try to check it on multiple sites.  Another strategy is to look at the links and sources the fact checkers cite, and check them out yourself.  Figuring out the truth can be a challenge, especially when it comes to complex political issues where different people want you to think different things. 

All the websites above are very good for up-to-the-minute coverage of issues in the news. For more in-depth coverage of controversial issues, Terrebonne Parish Library has two very good resources. One is a database called Issues & Controversies. This database, which can be found under the Social Sciences heading on our database page, has a wide range of articles giving a balanced overview of controversial issues. Most articles start with a short summary of the arguments on each side, and then go into a more detailed explanation of the history of the controversy, and the points of view of the opposing sides. This database is excellent for high school and college students studying politics or debate, but it is also a good way for adults to get some balanced background on today's overheated quarrels. Access Issues & Controversies directly from within the library, or call the reference desk (985.876.5861, option 2) for the username and password to use it from home or work.

Another excellent source for understanding both sides of various issues is a series of books called Opposing Viewpoints, published by Greenhaven Press. These books have the following motto: "Those who do not know their opponent's arguments do not completely understand their own". Each book includes several essays, both historical and current, arguing on either side of the debate. They also provide lists of articles, books, and even organizations that address the issue. Terrebonne Parish Library has a wide range of Opposing Viewpoints titles. If you want to try to understand the arguments on all sides of today's big controversies, this series is a great place to start.

- Ross Mays, Reference Librarian

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