NLP students join Broadway stars to consider ‘true’ versus ‘true-ish’

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NLP's Alan Miller (left) moderated the talkback session with Lifespan of a Fact director Leigh Silverman and actors Bobby Cannavale, Daniel Radcliffe and Cherry Jones. Photo by Miriam Romais/The News Literacy Project

NLP’s Alan Miller (left) moderated the talkback session with Lifespan of a Fact director Leigh Silverman and actors Bobby Cannavale, Daniel Radcliffe and Cherry Jones. Photo by Miriam Romais/The News Literacy Project

“Facts have to be the final measure of truth.”  

That’s what fact-checker Jim Fingal (portrayed by Daniel Radcliffe) says in the play The Lifespan of a Fact. At the News Literacy Project, we believe that the lifespan of a fact is eternal. 

The play, based on a 2012 book by Fingal and writer John D’Agata (played by Bobby Cannavale) about Fingal’s fact check of an essay by D’Agata, shone a light on the tension between accuracy and creative license. And on Tuesday, students from two New York schools that use NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom — the Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria and the Bronx Collaborative High School — attended the play and participated in a talkback session with Radcliffe, Cannavale, Cherry Jones (who plays Fingal’s boss, a magazine editor), and the play’s director, Leigh Silverman. NLP founder and CEO Alan Miller moderated the discussion.  

The 30-minute Q&A covered a number of topics, such as the importance of the arts and the ability to enjoy a movie “based on a true story” without looking up every fact upon leaving the theater. The actors also had a strong message for the students, describing how their roles in the play had strengthened their respect for journalism and for real-life fact-checkers. In fact, in preparation for this part, Radcliffe shadowed a fact-checker at The New Yorker.  

“It gave me incredible faith,” Radcliffe said, noting that he was “inspired” by the “people out there who are doing this job and doing it amazingly rigorously.”  

Checkology students Christina Wright (left) and Kelis Williams from Bronx Collaborative High School. Photo by Miriam Romais/The News Literacy Project

The play, in a limited run at Studio 54 in New York City, centers on Fingal’s fact check of an essay by D’Agata before it is published in a magazine. It devolves into a philosophical argument over “true” versus “true-ish”: Fingal and D’Agata disagree, for example, over whether specific numbers — how many strip clubs there are in Las Vegas, for example — must always be accurate (the fact-checker’s opinion) or can be changed to serve a literary purpose (the essayist’s opinion). The audience applauded when Fingal described facts as “the final measure of truth.” 

All three actors responded to the students’ questions with answers that led to a similar conclusion: A play might not be based on facts, but the news you consume every day needs to be. Every time.  

“It’s just the world we’re living in now, isn’t it, where every day people in power play fast and loose with the facts,” said Jones, adding that it’s only because of “superb journalism” that their misstatements are known. 

The night ended with a group photo — and NLP bumper stickers (“My facts just ran over your fiction”) for the actors and the director as a reminder to continue to fight for facts. The students thanked Radcliffe, Cannavale, Jones and Silverman for the opportunity. Amazingly, no one asked Radcliffe anything about Harry Potter 

And that’s a fact.

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