‘I come to praise fact-checking, not to bury it’

Julia Homer
Julia Homer

by Julia Homer

About the author: Julia Homer was the editor of CFO Magazine for its 1985 launch and served at CFO Publishing until January 2012 when she left as executive vice president. While CFO was part of The Economist Group from 1989 to 2009, Homer helped launch CFO Europe, CFO Asia and CFO China, and spin-offs such as Treasury and Risk Management. In 2013, she was named winner of ASBPE’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Fact-checking is not entirely dead in the publishing world. The New Yorker – using a system separate from the reporter and line editor — still famously fact-checks everything, including its cartoons. Rolling Stone brought in the fact-checkers in its recent efforts to defend its controversial article on a gang rape at the University of Virginia. (“Jackie neither said nor did anything that made [reporter Sabrina] Erdely, or Rolling Stone’s editors and fact-checkers, question Jackie’s credibility.”)

But in most media enterprises, the fact-checker left the building long ago, an early casualty of the shrinking editorial budget. That separate function has been replaced by self-checking by the reporter, or additional questioning by the line editor.

Granted, those old-style fact-checkers could pursue accuracy to the point of pettiness. (Does restaurant company Chi-Chi’s really operate 4,972 outlets? Is it Corp. or Corporation?) In inexperienced hands, the practice of confirming quotes could engender hideously awkward conversations. (“Would you describe yourself as ‘rotund’?”) Or, worse, it could render comments colorless, if not meaningless. (“I didn’t say ‘the stupid system has serious problems,’ I said ‘our customers appreciate our continuous improvements to our paradigm-shifting technology.’ ”)

Back then, reporters had a love-hate relationship with the fact-checkers. No one wanted to be caught in an error by an ambitious fact-checker eager to impress the editor by finding holes in a writer’s story; on the other hand, many a journalist welcomed the prospect of a second person validating the soundness of a complex explanation of, say, collateralized debt obligations. A good fact-checker could even slip in an extra question on behalf of the reporter. However reluctant sources might be to take a second call from a reporter, they always picked up the phone for someone checking their facts.

Fact-checking proved especially useful in B2B publishing, where the subject matter is often technical and journalists lack the specialized expertise of their audiences. The New Yorker fact-checkers might track down a wide range of trivia — everything from the number of columns on the Lincoln Memorial to the date of Benjamin Franklin’s arrival in Paris. At B2B outlets covering business or technology, they clarified complex and substantial issues.

The emergence of search engines, paradoxically, rendered fact-checking (and reporting) both easier and less rigorous. Back in the day, fact-checkers often found, and actually interviewed, experts not identified by the reporter. Kathi Maio, who went from fact-checking the long-defunct Technology Illustrated to working as a college reference librarian, recalls, “I had to find people who really knew what they were talking about — sometimes multiple ones. The cool thing was finding, talking to, and reviewing manuscripts with true experts in the field.” The point wasn’t just to back up what was written in the manuscript; the point was also to verify the credibility of the source. [Without knowing the details, I’d say that it’s clear the fact-checker of the Rolling Stone article did not consult additional sources.]

At their best, fact-checkers were truth-seekers. Fundamentally, the presence of a fact-checker sent a strong signal to the rest of the editorial team that every word printed must be true, or at least accurate. At the very minimum, reporters knew they would be accountable for their words. The top editor set the tone, of course, but the fact-checker played the role of enforcer.

These days, with reporters pushed to produce multiple stories a day, fact-checkers are a luxury almost no one can afford — a problem of time as much as money. But even now, it’s still possible to insist on solid fact-checking practices, and to maintain a strong fact-check ethos, even if that requires reporters to make their own double-checking calls and line editors to raise the bar on their questions of the reporter. Even at thinly staffed operations, editorial teams can put these policies into practice:

  1. Set the tone. Insist that reporters get the details right the first time. Push editors to spot-check stories with more substantial questions.
  2. Offer training, or at least a guide. Staffers should learn how to identify solid online sources for subject areas and recognize less reputable imitators. Many easily available sources have biases, which should be acknowledged in the article if the source is used (e.g., the Cato Institute is a libertarian think tank; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a bias toward warm in its weather forecasts.) Create rules for use of Wikipedia; prohibit the use of anonymous and undated web pages, or pages with disclaimers.
  3. Require source lists. Reporters should provide one with each story, and be prepared to defend their choice of sources.
  4. Pick up the phone. PR agencies now send canned quotes from their clients to journalists in response to news developments whether or not a press release has been attached. Many of these clients would be happy to talk on the phone — especially if you say you are calling to fact-check an article.
  5. Make the standards universal. Blogs, essays, and opinion pieces of all kinds are assuming more editorial real estate, but there is no reason opinion-based pieces should be exempt from the standards applied to conventional reporting.

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