by Geri Zabela Eddins

The Fact Checker column in The Washington Post uses a system of Pinocchios to represent the level of falsity in a political claim. In December 2018, The Fact Checker introduced the Bottomless Pinocchio. The bar for the Bottomless Pinocchio is high: Claims must have received Three or Four Pinocchios from The Fact Checker, and they must have been repeated at least twenty times. The Washington Post asserts that twenty is a sufficiently robust number that there can be no question the politician is aware that his or her facts are wrong. (The iconic Pinocchio image used by The Fact Checker was created in 2007 by illustrator Steve McCracken.)

Presidential contenders have a LOT to say when meeting with voters and interviewers across the country. Not only do they present their own ideas and plans for the country, they are also known to twist the truth about their past record and achievements to present themselves in the best possible light. Furthermore, candidates also attack, insult, and sometimes tell untruths about their opponents’ records and positions, making it even more difficult for the voting public to determine the truth. (Read more about how mudslinging, misinformation, and other types of dirty tactics have been used throughout America’s history to promote or denigrate presidential hopefuls in “Persuading the People: Presidential Campaigns.”)

We can learn about where each candidate stands on the issues from many different sources, such as campaign websites, speeches, debates, and news coverage. Still, it can sometimes be extremely difficult to determine what is fact and what is fiction.

In their book unSpun: Finding Facts in a world of Disinformation, Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson provide a five-step process to thinking critically, which can be particularly helpful when trying to determine what campaign rhetoric is true or not:

  1. Keep an open mind.
  2. Ask questions.
  3. Cross-check.
  4. Look for the best information.
  5. Weigh the evidence.

A good place to cross-check and validate information is a news fact-checking site. Excellent fact-checking sites include:

  • This website is a project supported by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania that “aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.” Here you can read unbiased, nonpartisan analysis of current campaign ads, debates, speeches, interviews, and news releases.
  • “Fact Checker” column in The Washington Post. The goal of this column is to provide “the truth behind the rhetoric” in the national political debates regarding the presidential candidates, political ads, Congress, and specific issues.
  • This Pulitizer Prize winning project of the St. Petersburg Times and Congressional Quarterly is designed “to help you find the truth in the presidential campaign” and other issues facing the nation using its Truth-O-Meter scorecard regarding statements made not only by this year’s group of presidential contenders, but also by current politicians, advisors, and political groups.

Activities and Discussion Questions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom

Compare Fact-Checking Sites

Invite students to choose one particular candidate and to review fact-checking articles regarding that candidate’s statements on at least two of the fact-checking sites. Ask students:

  • What did they learn?
  • Were they surprised at how many of the candidate’s statements are true or not?
  • Did they find the fact-checking articles helpful or not?
  • Do the fact-checking sites “agree” on what is fact and what is not?
  • Which site did they prefer and why?

Compare the Truth Scales

Ask students to compare the truth scales used by The Fact Checker column in The Washington Post and the PolitiFact column:

  • The Fact Checker column uses a scale of up to four Pinocchios to indicate the level of truth or untruth being told.
  • PolitiFact uses a Truth-O-Meter scale ranging from false to true, with “Pants on Fire” indicating the most outrageous falsehood.

Do students find these scales helpful or not? Why? Invite students to make up their own truth scale.

Analyze a Speech or Debate Using the Five-Step Process

Watch a campaign speech, debate, or commercial with young people. Beforehand, review Jackson and Jamieson’s five-step process for thinking critically and ask them to be sure to keep an open mind and to question statements being made in the speech, debate, or commercial. Have kids take notes while watching the speech regarding questions that come to mind. Afterwards, ask students to research their questions. Encourage them to review one or more fact-checking sites, but to look for information using other authoritative sources as well to find the best evidence that either supports or repudiates the claims made by the candidates. A school or public librarian can be an excellent resource to help students with their research! Once students have completed their research, ask them to write their own fact-checking report that analyzes the speech, debate, or commercial. For fun, you can ask kids to provide some type of truth label for each of the candidate’s claims, using their own truth scale. You may also want to invite kids to present their reports to the group or class for further discussion.

©2020 by Geri Zabela Eddins; The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance