October 17, 2018

A marvelous new Broadway play is going to bring new attention to magazine fact-checking. But I’m afraid it will add to the confusion about the unique form of political journalism that has the same name.

“The Lifespan of a Fact,” which opens Thursday, stars Daniel Radcliffe as an intern who quibbles with the tiniest details in an article about a Las Vegas suicide. When he challenges the headstrong writer (Bobby Cannavale), the play, adapted from a 2012 book, becomes a thoughtful exploration of the differences between facts and truth.

I saw the play during previews last week and found it funny and fascinating. But it also brought some familiar pangs because it is sure to rekindle the long-running confusion about the two types of fact-checking — the kind Radcliffe’s character practices and the journalism that I’ve been deeply involved with since I started PolitiFact 11 years ago.

The confusion is understandable because both have the same name. This has prompted years of wisecracks that often go something like this:

(Spoken with an air of snark) “There’s a new thing called ‘fact-checking’? I thought that’s what journalists were always supposed to do!” Snicker, snicker.

So this is a good moment to set the record straight.

Editorial fact-checking: This is what Radcliffe does in the play and what many staffers do at the New Yorker and other publications: They go line by line through articles before publication and make sure they’re accurate.

Of course, the author should also have done this before before the article was submitted. In my advanced reporting class at Duke University, I hand out red Flair pens at the start of the semester and require students turn in marked-up drafts indicating they have checked every name, number and sentence.

At some publications, teams of fact-checkers also do this shortly before publication. These fact-checkers typically require that writers provide notes and research materials to back up every line. When there is a dispute, the editor steps in to referee, as Cherry Jones’s character does in the play.

Fact-checking statements by politicians and others: This is a unique form of journalism in which reporters research claims by politicians and political groups and assess how accurate the claims are. It’s also been expanded to include claims by people in the media and statements about climate and science. Fact-checkers now have a code of principles that sets standards for nonpartisanship and transparency.

It is a relatively new phenomenon in journalism. It didn’t start in the United States until the early 1990s, thanks to prodding after the 1988 campaign by Washington Post political writer David Broder. He said journalists needed to hold politicians accountable for their claims in campaign ads, so most of the fact-checking in the 1990s focused on ads and was branded with names like “ad watch” and “spot check.”

Political fact-checking didn’t really hit the mainstream until the 2008 presidential election, when there were enough outlets doing it (most notably FactCheck.org, PolitiFact, and The Washington Post) and the internet had matured enough to provide a large audience.

But 10 years later, lots of people still confuse the two types of fact-checking, including a fair number of people who work in journalism. If you hear someone do that, tell them that all journalists should fact-check, but that all fact-checking isn’t fact-checking.

Hmm. Better yet, send them a copy of this article.

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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…
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