Is fact-checking a serious candidate for elephant-in-the-room status?

NEW YORK – Visions of elephants-in-the-room frequently are called to mind when we confront seemingly insurmountable problems. And for B2B editors, it appears that specter has arrived in the form of today’s fact-checking dilemma.

During a recent appraisal of Ethics News Update‘s editorial line-up for our January issue, ASBPE past president and ENU executive editor Roy Harris put it this way: “We need an overview of ‘How to Replace the Cost-Related Disappearance of the Independent Fact-Checker.’ The ‘elephant in the room’ is that little formal fact-checking is done any more beyond reporters going over their copy, and the editor doing a better job of questioning things that don’t make sense. Finances don’t allow ‘real’ fact-checking.”

In fact, there may be more than one elephant confounding the dilemma. For example, sources interviewed for ENU’s fact-checking focus agreed that the risk of publishing misinformation has skyrocketed since the Internet’s arrival. But how does a swamped B2B editorial staff provide for necessary verification procedures?

A good start, according to journalism authorities, is to create an accuracy checklist that provides a “red flag” reference point when yes-or-no fact-checking decisions are required. For most B2B editorial staffs, no such written guidelines probably exist.

B2B fact-checking handbook proposed

This status prompted ASBPE’s recent announcement that our Ethics Committee would begin researching content for a B2B-tailored, fact-checking handbook. We’ve already determined that a big-picture approach covering efficient fact-gathering procedures is warranted. As of now, the impression conveyed is that much of our guidance will stem from B2C sources. And even then, input may be limited, as suggested by this recent response to ENU from Sid Holt, chief executive, American Society of Magazine Editors:

“Although research departments have been whittled down in size – sometimes to the point of extinction — fact-checking of print content is still considered essential, but now more of it is being done by assistants and interns.”

Holt added: “As far as I know, fact-checking of digital content is rare. Budgets and deadlines discourage it, and the interactive culture of the web – post it, then make it better – weighs against it. The web is believed to be a self-correcting mechanism – that the community will detect and correct errors – which works until the mistake is so calamitous it goes viral.”

Holt’s view of digital media fact-checking challenges was confirmed by Gerri Berendzen, communication director, American Copy Editors Society. Failure to achieve a higher level of fact-checking diligence will widen an already existing credibility gap, she warns.” (Editor’s note – An ENU interview with Berendzen on the importance of fact-checking training appears elsewhere in this issue.)

“Even if we become aware of an inaccuracy just ten minutes after the news is posted,” she insists, “thousands of people already will have read about it.” That’s long enough for a presumption to be made that the misinformation is actually factual.

Special attention to fact-checking procedures may be a rare event, but publications exist that are willing  to seek highest possible accuracy levels. For example, during a recent e-mail exchange with ENU, D Magazine managing editor Liz Johnstone described this policy:

“Writers contractually agree to verify all the facts stated in the manuscript provided. We reserve the right to independently verify all facts, and writers are expected to provide materials (including, but not limited to, documents and contract information) for checking upon delivery of the work.

“We do fact-check, and currently have an up-to-date internal procedure for all fact-checking. The managing editor acts as primary fact-checker, with the help of college and graduate-level interns who, in addition to knowing what a fact is, are trained. Any fact-checker works closely with the managing editor.”

Another elephant to confront

Any list of fact-checking contenders would not be complete if we omitted how best to verify vendor product announcements. One possible scenario was described to ENU by a former B2B editorial director who remains a strong advocate of verifying supplier-sourced information:

“One of your publication’s sales managers will visit a client who says, ‘We just got a call from one of your editors verifying the price of our product and spelling of the product name.  ‘Yes,’ the sales manager will say. ‘Our editors care about getting the information right. Don’t all publications do that?’ I am told it’s a great moment for the sales staff when they get to do that!”

(Editor’s note: In my own consulting practice, I have often needled clients who allow “endorsement language” in PR announcements to go unchallenged. If in doubt, but afraid to butt heads with an advertiser, editors should strike the questionable language – especially undocumented claims of superiority over competitive products.)

As we continue to research fact-checking issues, we expect to encounter awesome tales of factual largess. That parade already has begun. For instance, Aphra Communications president Randy B. Hecht relayed that “for the past 15 years and counting, citation has occurred of a ‘recent’ study finding that ‘65% of small business owners don’t even know what their company is worth, and only 15% have an exit strategy.”

The study, says content provider specialist Hecht, was often referred to as having appeared in a publication that, she learned, had been discontinued for at least ten years. She connected with the former owner “who was unaware that the survey had acquired Internet mortality. He chuckled that people had given perpetual ‘recent’ status to a statistic that a quick check into his archive revealed had last appeared in his August 1999 issue.”

ASBPE’s Ethics Committee will strive to assemble guidance for B2B editors that parallels objectives of our ethics code. That is . . . all advisories, while well-founded, are a resource that can be referred to where “yes” or “no” decisions are involved. When such guidance does not exist, it becomes too convenient to do nothing.

Leave a Comment