Based on the book of the same name, The Lifespan of a Fact opened cold on Broadway at Studio 54 October 18, 2018, and immediately illuminated issues of journalistic integrity, art versus media, and what the word “truth” actually means. Jim Fingal is an intern at a literary magazine assigned to factcheck an essay by John D’Agata—the kind of piece that, according to editor-in-chief Emily Penrose could be “meaningful” and “pushes the envelope.” Inspired by Jim, John, and their real-life negotiation, the story follows Jim as he investigates every checkable fact in John’s article (excuse me, “essay”) as John fights to preserve the art of the story and the essence of truth.
But are truth and facts the same? What about news and storytelling? Should there be a difference? When should a writer’s perspective surface, if ever? What facts are negotiable, if any? How do you know? In this episode, host Ruthie Fierberg digs into the origins of the play with Leigh Silverman—yielding a surprise twist—before opening up the discussion about facts and their negotiability, or lack thereof, with renowned content creator Ira Glass of This American Life who says facts are black-and-white and Barbara Brandon-Croft, a fact-checker and research director at Parents magazine, who says situations like those portrayed in Lifespan are all too familiar. In the end, these artists and experts advise us all on how to consume reliable media and how to hold journalists and their outlets to ethical standards.
Referred to in this episode
- John D’Agata’s story “What Happens Here” that inspired the book The Lifespan of a Fact, which inspired the play
- The July 25, 2008, episode of This American Life “Switched at Birth”
- The January 6, 20120, episode of This American Life “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” and its subsequent retraction, titled “Retraction” released March 16, 2012
- Read Ira’s 2012 letter about the retraction here
- Study: Distinguishing Between Factual and Opinion Statements in the News (How well can Americans tell the difference?)
- Quiz: How well can you tell factual from opinion statements?
Create the change
- Take the quiz to see if you know the difference between fact and opinion statements
- Learn the difference between fact and opinion statements with this one-sheet
- Dive deeper with this lesson plan from The Guardian
- Support your local radio station or local television news station
- Find your local radio station in one click
- Watch Hasan Minhaj explain the importance of local news on Patriot Act
- Check the masthead (akin to a staff directory) of your magazines. Look for a “Research Director” or “Head of Research” and/or “Fact-checkers” on the EDITORIAL staff (NOT the Marketing/Sales/Publishing staff).
- Stay aware. Always check your sources. (Wikipedia is not a reliable source—though it may lead you to one.)
- Examples of reliable sources: government agencies, studies from a journal of repute, doctors and lawyers in their area of specialty, Nielsen and Pew Research Center
Our theme music is by Benjamin Velez. Hear more at BenjaminVelez.com.
Our logo is by Christina Minopoli. See more at MinopoliDesign.com.
Special thanks to Dori Berinstein, Leigh Silverman, Patrick Taylor, Tony Montenieri, Elena Mayer, Wesley Birdsall, and Suzanne Chipkin.
Connect with Ruthie!
ABOUT OUR GUESTS
Leigh Silverman, director
A director in high demand, Silverman is a pioneer in the theatre. Her work consistently grapples with real-world issues from stories of immigration to journalistic integrity, climate change to the merits of democracy. She champions representation in the theatre and her Broadway production of The Lifespan of a Fact marked the first all-female design team in Broadway history. Her select credits include Broadway’s Grand Horizons (2ST; Williamstown Theater Festival); The Lifespan of a Fact (Studio 54); Violet (Roundabout; Tony nomination); Chinglish (Goodman Theatre; Longacre); Well (Public Theater; ACT; Longacre); and recent Off-Broadway’s Tumacho (Clubbed Thumb); Soft Power (Public Theater; Ahmanson Theater/ Curran Theater); Hurricane Diane (New York Theatre Workshop; Two River Theater); Harry Clarke (Vineyard Theatre/Audible, Minetta Lane; Lortel nom). Encores: Violet; The Wild Party; Really Rosie. She received the 2011 Obie Award and 2019 Obie for Sustained Excellence.
Ira Glass, This American Life
The host and executive producer of This American Life, Ira started working in public radio in 1978, when he was 19, as an intern at NPR’s headquarters in D.C. Over the next 17 years, he worked on nearly every NPR news show and did nearly every production job they had: tape-cutter, desk assistant, newscast writer, editor, producer, reporter, and substitute host. He moved to Chicago in 1989 and put This American Life on the air in 1995. He is the 2009 recipient of Edward R. Murrow Award for Outstanding Contributions to Public Radio and earned the George Polk Award in Radio Reporting in 2011. He was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2014. @iraglass, @ThisAmerLife
Barbara Brandon-Croft, The Parents Network
Barbara is the current research director of Parents magazine, a position she has held since 2007. But Barbara has been a research editor and fact-checker for more than 20 years. A graduate of Syracuse University, Barbara is also an artist. The daughter of famed cartoonist Brumsic Brandon Jr. (creator of Luther), Barbara is also a cartoonist herself. Her comic Where I’m Coming From became the first nationally syndicated column in mainstream media by a female African-American artist. She and her father are also the only nationally syndicated father-daughter cartoonists on record.