Fact-checking made the news this week after Newsweek responded to allegations of inaccuracies in their cover story, “Hit the Road, Barack,” by choosing the “we don’t fact check, it’s not our responsibility” excuse. The piece, written by Niall Ferguson , a Harvard history professor, made several statements about the economic impact of Obama’s budget and the Affordable Care Act that were not supported by the data. The official statement?
“We, like other news organisations today, rely on our writers to submit factually accurate material,” Newsweek spokesman Andrew Kirk told Politico’s Dylan Byers.
According to Poynter, Newsweek actually cut fact-checking to save costs way back in 1996. Apparently, serious (eg trained, staffed) fact checking departments have been disappearing from magazines for awhile. Many, like Newsweek, just trust their freelancers to provide accurate content. (Read the Poynter piece)
The conversation that followed, from magazine contributors blogging about the fact-checking policies they follow ( here and here) to twitter debates about if fact-checking should be an entry level journalism job or if the required critical eye was the result of plenty of experience, caught my attention because I’ve learned a lot about fact checking at my internship this summer.
I’m working at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism , a nonpartisan, not for profit newsroom here in Madison. Because we mostly produce in-depth, investigative feature pieces that take a lot of time to report, we can take the time to thoroughly fact check everything we publish. We don’t have to rush news stories out daily. My most recent story, about 2,000 words on the economic impacts of the sand mining industry that experienced exponential growth here recently, took 6 hours to fact -check. We found nearly 150 facts in the story. You can (and should!) read it here .
When we do a fact check, the reporter and a colleague sit down with a paper copy of the story, two laptops, a printer, and plenty of pens and highlighters, and lots of papers. Beforehand, I prepare (several extra hours) by going over my interview notes and highlighting key facts and quotes, and printing out reports or databases and circling the parts we reference in the story. We start at the beginning, numbering every fact in the story and then placing the corresponding number on the source material. What counts as a fact? In addition to direct quotes and statistics, we include things like the spelling of sources’ names and their titles, which is an easy place to make stupid mistakes, place names, references to past stories on a similar topic, and technical terms.
It’s very tedious. Very. But, I’ve caught mistakes almost every time, from a misspelled name to an extra zero in a key number, so I’m totally a believer. It was intimidating at first, to have someone make you prove everything you have written, but I’ve found that it really just makes me a better writer. Now, I do realize that this type of extensive fact checking is really quite rare in the journalism world, because it is so time consuming, but for me it has been hugely informative. I’m learning to organize my information, as I report, to allow for more efficient fact-checking, which really means fact-checking has forced me into improving my information management. I basically annotate my stories as I write each section- not in the initial flow of my writing, by shortly after, so I have no chance to forget where I found each fact. Because it’s surprisingly easy to lose a fact when you have more than a hundred. Forcing myself to go over my work with this critical eye, late in the game when it’s easy to gloss over your own words because you’ve read them dozens of times, also helps me tighten my prose and clarify specific points.
Mistakes can happen, even to careful journalists, so it’s great to have help trying to find those mistakes before you share them with the world. As a beginning freelancer, I wish every publication had such a careful fact-checking process, but I hope in the future I can turn my new-found critical eye onto myself. I try to incorporate careful information management throughout my reporting, but it’s still a lot of work.
Readers who are writers too- how do you handle your information? Do you fact check yourself? Do the places that you publish? Please share your experience in the comments- I’m still trying to learn as much as I can about efficiently checking for accuracy. Thanks!