This election season, fact checking has become a story in itself. But what do we really know about how different media outlets fact-check their stories, and what could they be doing better? Brooke speaks with "This American Life" host Ira Glass, The New Yorker's Peter Canby, "All Things Considered" producer Chris Turpin and Poynter's Craig Silverman about the process of trying to get things right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Craig Silverman whose blog Regret the Error tracks journalism’s mistakes, says a bad moon’s rising.
CRAIG SILVERMAN: So we’re coming off what was – I call the summer of sin.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: CNN and Fox News initially reported, wrongly, that the Supreme Court had struck down the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act. ABC News reporter Brian Ross implied, wrongly, that the Aurora, Colorado shooter James Holmes was a member of the local Tea Party. Interns at NPR and the Wall Street Journal were caught, respectively, plagiarizing and fabricating. CNN host and Time Magazine editor Fareed Zakaria confessed to plagiarizing. New Yorker and Wired.com writer and bestselling author Jonah Lehrer was caught recycling his own stuff – is that so bad – and fabricating. That’s bad. And the New Canaan News, a small Hearst paper in Connecticut, according to Silverman, employed, quote, “one of the worst serial fabricators in modern journalism.”
CRAIG SILVERMAN: So a really, really bad summer, and yet, when journalists at these news organizations, people in leadership roles, were sort of asked to say, well, what’s going on and what are you looking into and what do you know as of this point, in a lot of cases they actually wouldn’t answer any questions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You think it’s hypocritical.
CRAIG SILVERMAN: It is. If we make it a practice to stonewall requests for basic information about a transgression that’s happened, then when we turn around and we do the exact same thing to government agencies or to large institutions in society or companies, they can say well, you didn’t answer questions from fellow journalists when something happened in your house. Why would I tell you about what’s going on in our house?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That lesson isn’t lost on Ira Glass. When “This American Life’s” famous episode about Mike Daisey’s trip to an apple factory in China, concluding with an indictment of the company, turned out to be largely fabricated, Glass produced another episode anatomizing the errors and the process and agonizing over the breach of the listeners’ trust. That’s why we’re talking to him again this week, actually, for the third week in a row. He’s sort of becoming our Andy Rooney.
IRA GLASS [MIMICKING ANDY ROONEY]: Brooke, have you ever thought about fact checkers, I mean, really thought about it?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But the potential fallout from the Daisy episode was no joke.
IRA GLASS: I mean, my fear was that people were gonna ask well, what about everything else you’ve ever put on the radio? [LAUGHS] I feel like we can’t let this happen again, as a staff. We can go to our audience once and say like, oh, we messed this one up. But we cannot go to them a second time. So now we’re spending between $300 and $1,000 a show on fact checkers. We set aside $60,000 in this year’s budget to hire freelance fact checkers, people who work for, you know, national magazines – the New York Times Magazine. I want the stories to be right!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Different media outlets handle checking in different ways. On our show, we scrupulously research our guests, prep ourselves and even fact check during the interviews. We’re not live, so we can do that. We still make lots of mistakes. So we have a link to corrections and where listeners can report errors on our home page, and we notate the transcripts to reflect the original error and the fix.
NPR’s “All Things Considered” produces up to ten interviews a day. That’s a lot of vetting, prepping and post-interview followup. And so, says Executive Producer Chris Turpin, correct they must.
CHRIS TURPIN: That is why we took to running letter segments pretty much every day, which we didn’t used to do. We are the first draft of history. We shouldn’t pretend that we don’t get things wrong on a regular basis. We have to work fast. We try very, very hard to get it right. But yeah, of course, we should fess up when we don’t get stuff right. We shouldn’t be mealy-mouthed about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Has the operation changed at all in this fact-fraught season, when it seems everyone claims entitlement to their own facts? Has there been a tweaking of the process?
CHRIS TURPIN: I’m not sure entirely how you can tweak the process. Many people, particularly in the political realm, don’t believe that they have to actually have any connection to the facts. You know, as you say, that creates a kind of peculiar kind of post-modern discourse at times. And it’s like well, how do you deal with that? If you put on live coverage of the Democratic and Republican Conventions, you would need a Roman army of fact checkers –
- to keep up with the number of potential misstatements or, you know, partial truths [LAUGHS] that are being disseminated. And I think that that is a – that’s an almost impossible task.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: For a daily radio show. How about a weekly magazine, famous for the most rigorous fact checking in the land?
PETER CANBY: I have 16 people in this department, including myself. And, at any given point, there are typically eight or nine languages that people speak fluently.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Peter Canby oversees fact checking at The New Yorker.
PETER CANBY: Mandarin, Arabic, Urdu, Russian, Italian, French, Spanish.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He says New Yorker fact checkers do reporting in reverse.
PETER CANBY: In other words, we take pieces apart and put them back together again. We talk to the writer’s sources. And we also try to get to the people who were mentioned in the story who maybe the reporter didn’t even speak to. If we have a second hand characterization of somebody else’s activities, then we will try to either get the reporter to go to that person or go to that person ourselves, just to get their perspective on things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What happens if the primary source disagrees vehemently with the characterization or the quote of the reporters? How do you know who to trust?
PETER CANBY: Well, that’s an excellent question. We get notes and transcripts from reporters before we call people. And then if somebody starts trying to back off something they clearly said, then we would say to them, “Sorry, we’re offering you a chance to fix things that are factually wrong and not to rewrite your interview.” Naturally, that tends to be kind of a conversation stopper, so when that happens we would typically go right away to the writer and to the editor and then we have to iron it out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Craig Silverman of the Regret the Error blog believes that in the future the fact checking of breaking news will make far greater use of the news consumer. In fact, he says that kind of fact checking has already arrived, performed by NPR’s social media dynamo, Andy Carven.
CRAIG SILVERMAN: He has found a way to transform his Twitter feed into an instant news wire about events in the Middle East. And he does that by choosing the right people to follow, by engaging with people on a constant basis, interviewing people and talking to people. And one of the other things that he does, he might re-Tweet somebody reporting that bombs have just fallen in one area and he’ll re-Tweet it but he’ll add proof or can you add a photo.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Carven’s interactive process offers the kind of crystalline transparency that Silverman craves. And yet, the very culture of fact checkers is rooted in invisibility. When a Time Magazine editor hired its first fact checkers back in the twenties, they were exclusively young women.
CRAIG SILVERMAN: Because while he considered this fact checking to be important, it wasn’t so important that he would hire men to do it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He sent a memo around about the ethos of fact checking. He says, “Any bright girl who really applies herself to the handling of the checking problem can have a very pleasant time with it, and fill the week with happy moments and memorable occasions. The most important thing to remember in checking is that the writer is your natural enemy. He is trying to see how much he can get away with. Remember that when people write letters about mistakes. It is you who will be screeched at.”
CRAIG SILVERMAN: There’s a lot in there. I mean, wow!
You know? And, and what I think is certainly true to this day is that typically people only notice fact checkers if some terrible mistake has been made.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh, it’s a perilous biz.
FCU FACT CHECKER: Do you have proof that your genitals look like the Virgin Mary?
FCU FACT CHECKER: Can you confirm that you own a red Corolla?
FCU FACT CHECKER: Can you confirm that bootcut jeans are so last year?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Perilous, but not – manly. That’s the central joke of the Funny or Die Web series “FCU: Fact Checkers Unit.” Hear the daring fact-checking duo, pray at the altar of Alex Trebec.
FACT CHECKER: Dear Father of Facts, please give us the strength to conduct this research quickly and properly. Amen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That old-time magazine editor sure was right about the screeching. The howls over Niall Ferguson’s recent Newsweek cover story about the President are still reverberating. Media outlets these days are enthusiastically eating their own and each other, just like they did back in the days of the Penny Press. And maybe that’s a good thing, but it’s not for the delicate – or the dainty.
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You can’t run. And you certainty can’t hide. Not anymore.