The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Wednesday, January 14, 2004

No fact-checking at most US newspapers: is that news?

Well, it was to me; but, then, that certainly wouldn't be news!

One of those things that I suspect is generally believed in Britain about American life by anyone who bothers about such things (not many) is that American newspapers have factcheckers, and British newspapers don't. This belief prayed in aid to explain, in part, the greyness of the American product and the gaudy unreliability of the British.

Your humble blogger had been under such an apprehension.

It's not true. Not according to a piece (via Instapundit) in the New York Observer (screwy URL) by Ron Rosenbaum (Two Minute Warning):
One thing many people don't realize is that magazines are far more likely to fact-check what they publish than newspapers and book publishers. Not all magazines maintain staffs of fact-checkers, but very few newspapers do (The Observer is one, thank God), and very few publishers as well.

And a piece from last September from Donald Luskin, who had the New York Times' Paul Krugman in his sights, says:
No one fact-checks Paul Krugman's column, or any other op-ed columns at the New York Times.

That's according to New York Times Company VP of Corporate Communications Catherine Mathis...According to Ms. Mathis, "Columnists are responsible for factchecking and correcting their own columns." So now we know the basic problem -- there's no reality check on Krugman. To say that a columnist fact-checks himself is to say that he is not fact-checked...

But it turns out it's not just the columnists. There's no reality check on anyone else either. Mathis says, "Unlike magazines, most newspapers, including The New York Times, do not employee factcheckers. This is mainly because of deadline issues. Reporters are responsible for the accuracy of their journalism. Editors review all material before it is printed and often catch errors prior to publication."

This statement strikes me as probably technically true but effectively disingenuous. The Times is famous for the multilayered editing process that a news story has to go through on the way to print. There may be no one in all those layers whose business card says "fact-checker," but in all that editing some real fact-checking certainly happens.

(He goes on to talk about the related topic of corrections at the Times.)

The point is that, in an editorial process, one may read a piece for all sorts of reasons; the mental attitude of a factchecker towards a piece would need to be quite different to that of a senior editor reading a piece to see how it blended in with the rest of its section, say.

Is there a list available of the American newspapers who do have a fact-checking department? How much does that sort of operation cost? Have the New York Times ever considered using one?

Veterans of the War of Jayson Blair's Armchair (I was a mere kibbitzer, in the style of the First Bull Run picnickers) will recall the august Siegal Committee, set up by the Times suits to produce recommendations for improvements; included is one [1], on orientation of new employees, to
give every employee a...briefing on accuracy, fact-checking and the importance of correcting mistakes...

On page 26, it says
Training in fact-checking should be mandatory for reporters and editors, especially new arrivals. Many reporters and editors are unfamiliar with the guidelines and procedures currently in place, and with the simple tools placed at our disposal by the Internet.

The quote underlines the fact that, at the Times, fact-checking is a DIY pastime; the references to the (archaically capitalised) Internet and its simple tools rather suggest the authors to be more familiar with the quill pen than the keyboard!

And [2] those are the only references to fact-checking in the entire document!

  1. Page 21 of the Report: my copy of the Report is from here (PDF) where the fact-checking reference is on p31a. The terms of reference are on p3 (p13a): the idiotic PDF doesn't allow copy/paste, but they look ample enough to cover a recommendation to set up a fact-checking department. Evidently, the Committee decided that, in the Times, fact-checking was best left to chance.

  2. There are nine references in the whole PDF document to check or some variant, none to factcheck, according to Acrobat's Find function.

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