February 6, 2023

When President Joe Biden steps to the House rostrum on Tuesday night to deliver the State of the Union address, every word he utters will be scrutinized by an army of fact-checkers.

The State of the Union has been called “the Super Bowl of fact-checking,” a night that brings out not just the regulars from PolitiFact, FactCheck.org and The Associated Press, but also reporters from a host of other news organizations who check every claim the president makes.

They’ll be wasting their time on the wrong guy.

Biden is already one of the most fact-checked politicians in America. PolitiFact, the site I founded, has rated him 252 times. CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale regularly examines Biden’s claims for exaggerations and misstatements, as does FactCheck.org.

That’s a sign of the lopsided focus of American fact-checkers. They have put most of their attention on Washington because national politics are bigger in every way. The battles are bigger — and so are the audiences for their shows and websites. And those audiences matter, even for nonprofit organizations such as PolitiFact and FactCheck.org. Editors need to show their funders that lots of people care about this unique accountability journalism.

But the journalists are putting too much attention on national politicians such as Biden and Donald Trump, who are well-checked. The real need is at the state and local levels. A report last fall by my Duke colleagues Erica Ryan, Mark Stencel and Belen Bricchi found a troubling phenomenon of “fact deserts,” states where politicians get little or no scrutiny for their factual claims.

The Duke Reporters’ Lab report found 29 states had no dedicated state or local fact-checkers, leaving politicians largely free to make wild, false claims with little worry about being held accountable. For example, New Hampshire did not have a dedicated fact-checker to dig into the claims of Republican U.S. Senate candidate Don Bolduc, an election denier who switched positions for the general election. Likewise, South Carolina doesn’t have one to question the many provocative statements of U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham.

The report also found lots of turnover among the local fact-checkers and sparse coverage where there was one. It also said the journalists are often seasonal, shutting down after an election until the next campaign season. That means governors, other state officials and lawmakers face a low likelihood of being checked for things they say between elections.

The challenge is a familiar one: With dwindling resources, local news organizations can’t afford to have their political writers do another task, let alone dedicate someone to it.

But political lying doesn’t stop on Election Day, nor at the Capital Beltway. Lies at the local level flourish. PolitiFact, which has a modest network of state sites, often finds that politicians in different places repeat the same (false) talking points. Yet with so few journalists monitoring the claims around the nation, most voters don’t know that their representatives are parroting the bogus talking points.

I’m not calling for an end to fact-checking the State of the Union. It deserves scrutiny like any major address by any president. But instead of adding another journalist to watch an overcovered event, national news organizations could provide a greater service by looking elsewhere to the lies that are sprouting around the country.

Instead of covering the Super Bowl, they should cover the games that are being played around the country every day.

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Bill Adair is the Knight Professor for the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University and the founder of PolitiFact. The fact-checking site…
Bill Adair

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