July 25, 2013

(Susana Gonzalez / Bloomberg)

It’s a challenge of which fact-checking trainees dream. On July 14, BuzzFeed published a list — 11 Awesome Facts You Never Knew About Rhode Island — that included one hilarious assertion: “In Providence, R.I., it’s illegal to sell toothpaste and a toothbrush to the same customer on a Sunday.”

PolitiFact Rhode Island went to town. It checked Providence ordinances. It checked with a city archivist. It checked state law. It checked with BuzzFeed for its source. All of that checking turned up no evidence that such a restriction exists. A BuzzFeed spokesperson defended the contention, noting that, “It seems like it’s a commonly referenced piece of information.” A bogus one at that, concluded PolitiFact Rhode Island, which gave BuzzFeed a rating of “pants on fire” for the toothpaste-toothbrush contention.

Okay, so? What’s the big deal here?

That PolitiFact Rhode Island termed the list a “feature,” which suggests that it considered the item part of BuzzFeed’s news presentation. In fact, it’s part of BuzzFeed’s formidable sponsored-content offensive. The site confirms that no editorial staffers were involved in producing the item. Here’s the top of the “feature”:

Signage notwithstanding, the folks at PolitiFact Rhode Island didn’t consider what sort of silo housed the content. Timothy Murphy, an assistant managing editor at the Providence Journal and editor of PolitiFact Rhode Island, told the Erik Wemple Blog that the sponsored nature of the list didn’t come up in the editing process. “It was brought to our attention by a reader who was just curious and amused by it, and it was published on their Web site,” says Murphy. “It’s not clear to me whether it’s sponsored content or what it is.”

Bill Adair, Knight professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University, attests to some confusion in the markings of the “feature.” “Though it has the logo for the car company, it still appears like a typical BuzzFeed article written by the editorial staff,” says Adair, who recently left his job as the top editor at PolitiFact HQ (and who had no involvement in this fact-check). “I thought it was written by the editorial staff, so those are the kinds of things that PolitiFact fact-checks.” It’s possible, then, that if BuzzFeed had tucked this factually challenged thing into a traditional display ad, PolitiFact Rhode Island wouldn’t have bothered with it. Murphy: “We might still have done it, but would have identified it as being part of a display ad.”

Here’s a guess as to why Adair — and the Erik Wemple Blog — came away with the initial impression that the Rhode Island-related cute facts came from the editorial side of BuzzFeed. The items in the list steer away from the blatant product pitches that news consumers have come to expect from advertisers. For instance, they address toothpaste and toothbrushes, the fact that the first circus took place in Rhode Island, the official name of the state, and so on — not how wonderfully the Mini handles tight curves and the like. It’s clear that the purpose of these teases is to drag the reader to the bottom of the list, which looks like this:

As the screenshot makes clear, BuzzFeed has amended its dental item to read as follows: “While some believe it is an urban myth, it was reportedly once illegal in Providence, RI, to sell toothpaste and a toothbrush to the same customer on a Sunday.”

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.