In Praise of Fact-Checkers

In the wake of Niall Ferguson's dishonesty, Dylan Byers decided to contact Newsweek to see what controls the magazine had in place to prevent authors from lying to them. As it turns out, none:

"We, like other news organisations today, rely on our writers to submit factually accurate material," Newsweek spokesman Andrew Kirk told POLITICO.

More accurately, Newsweek has unwittingly outsourced its fact-checking to the web. Here's The Atlantic's contribution.

With that said, the point about "other news organizations" is really deceptive. From what I can tell, the presence of fact-checkers has a lot to do with the presence of budgets, and it varies from organization to organization. When I worked at the Village Voice back in the early aughts, there were fact-checkers. When I worked at TIME (Newsweek's direct competitor) in the mid-aughts there were fact-checkers. Some of this may have changed, due to budgets.

My freelance experience has pretty much been the same--everyone from VIBE to the The New York Times Magazine had fact-checkers. The Times' edit page did not have dedicated fact-checkers, but they did have editors fact-checking. They asked for sources, looked themselves, and followed up with me in instances where I forgot to cite a source, or none could be found.

When I arrived at The Atlantic in 2008, I was subjected to arguably the most thorough fact-checking procedure in all of popular publishing. That meant submitting an annotated version of the story with all sources cited, turning over all my notes, transcripts or audio, and the names and numbers of each of my sources, all of whom were called to confirm the veracity of my quotes. When I freelanced for The New Yorker, it was pretty much the same deal and the same level of scrutiny. (I think The New Yorker actually pioneered this particular version of fact-check.)

Being fact-checked is not very fun. Good fact-checkers have a preternatural inclination toward pedantry, and sometimes will address you in a prosecutorial tone. That is their job and the adversarial tone is even more important than the actual facts they correct. In my experience, seeing your name on the cover of a magazine will take you far in the journey toward believing your own bullshit. It is human to do so, and fact-checkers serve as a valuable check to prevent writers from lapsing into the kind of arrogant laziness which breeds plagiarism and the manufacture of facts. The fact-checker (and the copy-editor too actually) is a dam against you embarrassing yourself, or worse, being so arrogant that don't even realize you've embarrassed yourself. Put differently, a culture of fact-checking, of honesty, is as important as the actual fact-checking.

It's true that every organization--newspapers in particular--can't have fact-checkers. But there are other ways to instill that same culture of honesty. When I worked at Washington City Paper there was a hard rule about a writer's errors per year ratio. You get one wrong, you were invited in for an unpleasant chat. You got another wrong, you were invited in for a more unpleasant chat and you went on probation. You got another wrong and you were shown the door.

As with fact-checkers, the actual rule there was less important than the culture that flowed from it--that same culture of honesty. Having the sword hang over you makes you check yourself, and forces you to be wise to all the unpleasant temptations lurking around you.

There's some real irony in Newsweek's handling of all of this. Ferguson was not truthful in his article. Instead of his editors calling him on it, and noting it for the public, they lent him their website to double down on his dishonesty. And then to defend the initial error, the magazine cited current trends.

I'm not convinced this actually is the trend. I'd be shocked if Esquire, GQ, ESPN, Elle, Marie Claire etc. didn't fact-check their features. It would be a really bad idea for us to adopt the book publishing world's culture of passing the buck.