The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why fact-checkers won’t use the word ‘lie’

President Trump addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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The notion that President Trump lies has gone mainstream. “Trump Repeats Lie About Popular Vote in Meeting With Lawmakers,” blared the headline of a Jan. 23 story in the New York Times regarding the president’s claim that 3 million to 5 million unauthorized immigrants voted for Hillary Clinton in November, depriving him of a win in the popular vote. A BuzzFeed feature runs under the headline, “Here’s A Running List Of President Trump’s Lies And Other B–––––––.” Greg Sargent, a colleague of the Erik Wemple Blog, has written on this topic under this headline, “Yes, Donald Trump ‘lies.’ A lot. And news organizations should say so.”

Tell that to NPR.

Or to the fact-checking organizations assembled this morning at the National Press Club for the Missouri-Hurley Symposium: “Fact-Checking, Fake News and the Future of Political Reporting.” Asked how fact-checking has changed in the Trump era, Lori Robertson of said, “Well, just the sheer volume.”

The sheer volume, that is, of misstatements, falsehoods, misleading assertions. But not “lies,” per se. Policy at, said Robertson at the symposium’s panel discussion, is to avoid that term. Michelle Ye Hee Lee, who along with Glenn Kessler double-teams the fact-checking operation at The Post, said that her newsroom has the same policy. And Aaron Sharockman, the executive director of PolitiFact, tells the Erik Wemple Blog in a post-panel email that his group also steers clear.

Lies, untruths or misstatements? Post columnist Margaret Sullivan looks at how different newsrooms are reporting President Trump's claims over crowd size and voter fraud and how "alternative facts" can damage a democracy. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

The exception, of course, is PolitiFact’s “Lie of the Year.” “Lie of the Year we thought was a catchy phrase. The ‘award’ often encapsulates more than one falsehood,” emails Sharockman. “Day in, day out we avoid the use of the term lie because we rate statements not people.”

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Asked to elaborate on’s aversion to “lie,” Robertson cites the industry-standard explanation: “Was there intent to deceive?” That’s a question that’s tough to answer, and it’s required to prove the definition of “lie.” There’s another layer to the rationale, too: “Our official policy is the ‘intent’ argument, but … if we said somebody lies every other day, to me it sounds like name-calling,” says Robertson.

That’s not to say that Robertson hasn’t heard the cries for “lies.” “My question for people who want us to say this: Why? Why is that so important to you?” says Robertson. “I mean, is that valuable in some way for us to say somebody lied? Or is it more valuable for us to explain, ‘This was false and let us explain why. Let us give you some other information.’ I think that larger context is maybe more important than the label.”

How about this: Both are important. When the president states falsehoods that have been contradicted numerous times by well-distributed reporting — sometimes directly to him in interviews and the like — it’s fair to reach the conclusion that he has lied.

Robertson: “It’s not unusual at all for politicians not to back down after they’ve made a claim that five fact-checkers have written about and said it wasn’t true.” In fact, it’s more “not unusual” than ever.