Pinocchio, the Washington Post fact-checker

A few weeks ago I saw an article proclaiming that a public statement had received a “three Pinocchios” rating. Intrigued, I clicked through and discovered a phenomenon I do not remember seeing before the 2016 election, with its “alternative facts” and “fake news.” The Washington Post has begun grading statements by elected officials according to their degree of falsehood, using a cute image of Pinocchio (click here to see). The news organization does not use a series of images with increasingly long noses to indicate worse falsehoods, but rather this image repeated 1-4 times. They also make use of a “Geppetto checkmark” for truths and an upside-down Pinocchio image for “flip-flops” on positions.

The linking of the titular character from an Italian children’s novel, The Adventures of Pinocchio, to lying comes straight from the book. The memorable visual of the growing nose was of course popularized in America by Walt Disney Company’s 1940 film version of the story.

The reference to Pinocchio here works precisely because of its connection to children’s literature. Everyone in the audience has had to learn not to lie, and the story of a young boy learning not to tell falsehoods highlights the fact that this is (at least constructed as) a simple task that young children can master. Facts are facts. “Alternative facts,” “fake news,” and anything “not intended to be a factual statement” are lies, pure and simple. The Pinocchio rating is The Washington Post‘s way of bolstering the public’s confidence in traditional news media.

The site’s clear statement of their criteria for judgment goes a long way toward building their credibility. They judge prepared statements more harshly than statements made off-the-cuff, and both of those are mitigated if the speaker later recants or qualifies any honest mistakes. The rating scale is, in brief, 1 Pinocchio) mostly true, 2 Pinocchios) significant omissions or exaggerations meant to mislead, 3 Pinocchios) factual error or interpretations grossly out of context, and 4 Pinocchios) “whoppers.” They acknowledge that these can be subjective and that they strive to explain any fence-straddlers.

An example of the Pinocchio rating scale comes in the article “Trump’s facile claim that his refugee policy is similar to Obama’s in 2011,” which states within that “The Pinocchio rating has been updated in light of new information.” The story now has a 3-Pinocchio rating.

Since this discovery, I have discovered several news articles using “Pinocchio” references to describe Donald Trump or other public figures related to him:

The fairy-tale reference is, of course, one that every reader should understand and connect to. The editors making these headlines as well as the Pinocchio scale understand that most Americans in their audience will understand the connection between Pinocchio and the lesson that lying leads to negative consequences. The implication here is that our elected officials have made such a habit of lying that they are now equated with the bad habit. “Pinocchio” is an adequate enough nickname for readers to understand who is under discussion. And that, we understand, makes the 70-year-old President as ripe for chastisement as a boy so young he was very recently an inanimate puppet.

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