Zebra Fact Check considers the avoidance of apples-to-oranges comparisons a completely basic task in fact-checking.
Thus, it especially piques our interest when two mainstream fact checkers fact check the same apple fact with orange data when researching the same subject.
During his inauguration speech, President Biden said the coronavirus deaths from the past year equaled the number of Americans killed during World War II (bold emphasis added):
Few periods in our nation’s history have been more challenging or difficult than the one we’re in now.
A once-in-a-century virus silently stalks the country.
It’s taken as many lives in one year as America lost in all of World War II.
Though Mr. Biden apparently said nothing at all that would restrict his statement to Americans in military service, both Annenberg Fact Check and PolitiFact attempted to verify the claim by using totals for deaths in military service.
According to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 dashboard, updated at 12:21 p.m. on Jan. 20, around the time Biden made his remarks, the U.S. had 402,997 deaths from COVID-19 so far (there is some lag in reporting). According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there were 291,557 battle deaths in World War II. There were another 113,842 deaths among service members not in theater. That comes to 405,399 total U.S. deaths in World War II.
As Biden was speaking, the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus tracker was reporting 402,269 deaths in the United States. That is just shy of the 405,399 U.S. deaths during World War II, according to the Congressional Research Service. With the seven-day moving average of coronavirus deaths reaching 3,015 on Inauguration Day, the four-year World War II total was due to be matched by the coronavirus either on Jan. 20 or 21, less than a year after the virus reached the United States.
FactCheck.org and PolitiFact both falsely asserted that the United States suffered a total of 405,399 deaths during World War II, and both reached that number by using death counts for Americans in the military.
Both used a procedure that amounts to an apples-to-oranges comparison.
It’s trying to verify the apple of total U.S. deaths using the orange of U.S. military deaths. It’s a methodological blunder we should expect any professional fact-checker to avoid.
On Feb. 9, 2021 Zebra Fact Check submitted complaints about both fact-checking organizations to the International Fact-Checking Network. FactCheck.org and PolitiFact have publicly committed to the IFCN’s Code of Principles, part of which stipulates scrupulous adherence to an open and honest corrections policy.
Zebra Fact Check holds that a fact-checking organization does not adhere scrupulously to an open and honest corrections policy if it ignores strong evidence that it reported falsely.
Correction Feb. 17, 2021: We had “check check” in the second sentence where one “check” was intended. We removed one of them with this update.
Correction March 12, 2021: We far overestimated the success of the Feb. 17, 2021 correction. With this update we changed the first of the redundant occurrences of “check” to the word “fact.” We are satisfied that fixes the problem.