Why PolitiFact doesn’t use the word ‘lie’ — except once a year

Editor's note: PolitiFact Editor Angie Drobnic Holan wrote this column for the media news website Poynter.org.

You might expect a website that fact-checks American politics to use the word "lie" a lot. But at PolitiFact, we don’t.

We use the word lie once a year, when we consider a year’s worth of fact-checking and pick one falsehood that we consider the most egregious. We call it the Lie of the Year, and we’ve named one every December since 2009. This year’s Lie of the Year was the online smears against the Parkland students.

The rest of the time we avoid the word lie. That’s because of the tricky issue of claiming to know a person’s intention. Fact-checking is about precision in language — reporting what we know to be true or false as best we can tell. That can be straightforward, but intention is a grayer, less certain. How do we know that the person speaking knew it wasn’t true? Sometimes, right or wrong, the speaker really believes it to be accurate. And sometimes there are reasonable differences over the substance of a claim and what it means.  

Many people define a lie as when someone knows something isn’t true, but says it anyway. It’s not when you make a mistake or were confused or just used the wrong word. It’s more serious than that: It’s an intentional distortion of the truth, said for purposes of deception. The word "lie" has a unique forcefulness in the pantheon of synonyms for untruth.

When to call a lie a lie is something all journalists have been grappling with it. Using it can feel like holding the powerful accountable, but it can also feel like we’re directing the attention back on ourselves by using an incendiary word. It’s not about us — or at least, it shouldn’t be.

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Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times, said the newspaper uses the word judiciously, and for the same reasons.

"The word ‘lie’ is very powerful," he said last summer. "For one thing, it assumes that someone knew the statement was false. Another reason to use the word judiciously is that our readers could end up focusing more on our use of the word than on what was said. And using ‘lie’ repeatedly could feed the mistaken notion that we’re taking political sides. That’s not our role."

It is our role, though, to tell people when something isn’t right. At PolitiFact, we say inaccurate, exaggerated, not supported by the facts, lacking evidence, wrong, at odds with reality and more. All those words get us, factually speaking, to the same place.

When people ask me if President Donald Trump lies a lot, I usually avoid a yes or no answer. I prefer to say that he has a documented problem with speaking accurately; I think that conveys that I’ve studied the issue and that I’m not giving my personal opinion. And yes, my answer usually gets a laugh.

Trying to detect when Trump knows he’s saying something wrong and when he doesn’t is an interesting exercise. It’s pretty clear he doesn’t believe everything he says. He laughs at his own statements quite a bit, especially at political rallies.

Other times, he seems completely convinced that what he’s saying is correct, even when it’s objectively not, and he’ll defend his inaccurate statements to the hilt. His allies suggest the details don’t matter as much as the point. And, one person’s hyperbole may be another’s greater truth.

Sometimes readers tell us we should use the word "lie," particularly when politicians keep repeating something that has been shown to be false. They say that if we were more aggressive about calling out lies, the politicians might lie less.

I do not think for a minute that politicians would lie less if journalists used the word "lie" more. In fact, it might rob the word of some of its power. A more realistic scenario is that politicians will stop lying when they believe that telling the truth will be more helpful to their political objectives. That seems to be the nature of power.

So we rarely use the word "lie" at PolitiFact. I’m pretty sure our readers know what we’re getting at with ratings like Mostly False, False and Pants on Fire. And as long as they know when something isn’t true, then I am content we are doing our job.