News & Criticism

Who Will Fact Check the Fact Checkers?

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Michael Kinsley opens an amusing Washington Post column about newspaper corrections by noting that "'fact checking' is a tradition of some publications, mainly magazines, in which one set of employees, called fact checkers, is called upon to reconfirm every fact in an article by another set of employees, called writers, generally by finding these facts in newspapers, which don't have fact checkers." He might have added that fact checkers also confirm facts by looking them up in books, which generally do not have fact checkers either.

When I was a "reporter-researcher" at Fortune during college, the Time Inc. policy was that one verification by book was worth two verifications by newspaper. If I'm remembering the color scheme correctly, the former was a "red check," which was good enough on its own, whereas the latter was a "black check," acceptable only in pairs. I may have the colors reversed, but the point is that we all assumed books were more reliable than newspapers (or other periodicals). That was a mistake, I think. While some books categorized as nonfiction, such as reference works and peer-reviewed releases from academic presses, go through some sort of fact checking, the vast majority do not. (They are generally reviewed by lawyers with an eye toward possible libel issues, but you can get lots of things wrong without risking a lawsuit.) In fact, judging from the finished products, I'd say most books are barely edited, let alone checked for accuracy. By contrast, newspaper stories typically are reviewed by two or three editors before they see print. It's true that books take longer to produce, which gives a conscientious author more time to catch mistakes. Then again, they are a lot longer than newspaper stories, so there is more room for error.   

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  1. “I’d say most books are barely edited, let alone checked for accuracy. By contrast, newspaper stories typically are reviewed by two or three editors before they see print. It’s true that books take longer to produce, which gives a conscientious author more time to catch mistakes. Then again, they are a lot longer than newspaper stories, so there is more room for error.”

    whats the color checkmark for being non-committal?

  2. I think today’s MSM standard is “blank check.”

  3. This is exactly why I only trust the interweb. F*ck print.

  4. Well, I’d say the difference (which proves Time right) is that someone who writes a book stands a high likelihood of being, by the end of it, an actual expert on the subject. Where someone who writes a newspaper story… talked to some experts who wrote some books on the phone.

  5. Using black check marks only proves the media is racist.

  6. “You are not the kid of guy who would be in a place like this at this time of the morning. But you are, and you cannot say the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, but the details are fuzzy.”

  7. Reason.com relies on the enthusiastic and knowledgeable commenters to fact check their articles.* This works fairly well with errors graciously acknowledged and corrected.

    * Cheap bastards.

  8. SugarFree, just get a loaf of bread, that’ll make everything better.

  9. J sub D,

    If that’s the case, a verification by blog is worth 69 verifications by book.

  10. Mister DNA at 1:06, I’m not sensing an appropriate degree of indignation.

    You racist.

  11. The last time my name was in the paper, it was a couple of paragraphs that contained no less than half a dozen errors. I’ve been in the papers many times over the years and there are almost always a few errors.

  12. My break with the print media came after being in the military. Almost without exception, anything printed in a general interest pub about the military contained errors. If they were getting those details wrong, what else were they screwing up?

    Of course nothing beat reading an article in the Austin American-Statesman about Colombia, a small South African country.

  13. Nobody’s perfect, but in matters of public policy, intent is pertinent. Compare how the same story is covered by the Washington Post and the Washington Times. Errors, omissions, or lies?

  14. By contrast, newspaper stories typically are reviewed by two or three editors before they see print.

    Yes, but one of us is drunk and the other just doesn’t care anymore. Plus, I don’t care about facts. I have enough trouble just getting reporters to construct coherent sentences. And don’t get me started on sportswriters. The worst of the lot, they are.

  15. How do you fact check statements like “Republicans want to steal your Grandma’s Social Security check” or “Democrats want to teach your kindergartners how to use a dildo”? I wouldn’t put it past some publications to make softened versions of those claims,

  16. Errors, omissions, or lies?

    Always with the single option. Why can’t it be all three?

  17. Here’s an assignment for Reason: a Wikiquotes smear of Rush Limbaugh involving Nation Books. I’ve sent the latter group a few emails asking for an explanation and they’ve ignored me.

    And, for me doing the job no one else is willing or apparently able to do, see my coverage of FactCheck and Politifact’s Robert Farley.

  18. How do you fact check statements like “Republicans want to steal your Grandma’s Social Security check” or “Democrats want to teach your kindergartners how to use a dildo”?

    Brandybuck, the real question is “Why would you factcheck such statements?”

  19. I have seen many instances when published non-fiction books have inaccuracies, misleads, and incorrect information. I have seen it even more in newspaper articles and it is rampant on the Web. This is what happens when a culture lacks strong critical thinking and research skills. The politicians know this and that is why they take advantage of it every chance they get.

  20. Calling them “fact checkers:” is a stretch to begin with. More like “statistics checkers”.

  21. Here’s a statement of fact in today’s Chicago tribune that is 90% wrong:

    “The ’87 Beatles CDs were limited by the era’s technology; they were remastered at a much lower bit-rate than is currently available and their thin sound became more apparent as the decades passed.”

    But no “fact checker” would ever check it because there’s no statistics in it.

  22. Mister DNA at 1:06, I’m not sensing an appropriate degree of indignation.

    You racist.

    You didn’t capitalize. Don’t you even care about the suffering that slaves had to endure?

    YOU ARE A RACIST!

    (proper level of indignation indeed!)

  23. Mango Punch | September 4, 2009, 12:59pm | #
    This is exactly why I only trust the interweb. F*ck print.

    That’s why the government must control the internet, in order to provide you with the highest-possible-quality goodfact.

  24. Thanks for talking about this, Jacob. As a reference librarian, I’ve long wondered how fact-checkers do their jobs without the resources that I’ve had in large libraries.

  25. It’s true that books take longer to produce, which gives a conscientious author more time to catch mistakes.

    Truer words never spoken.

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