One day a few weeks ago, amid the media furor over the demise of stories at Rolling Stone and New York magazines, I did what one does in this enlightened age of communitarian values: I hastened to Twitter to speculate, with like-minded total strangers, on the what and why of the two escapades. The majority of the views shared that day merit only a superficial review. Journalistic standards had slipped. Editorial motives were suspect. Things used to be better. Or not. Twice in a single missive, I typed the word “never.” Once in all caps.
One aspect of the conversation, however, stuck with me. The failure of the two stories — one chronicling an alleged sexual assault at the University of Virginia, the other about a supposed stock-trading whiz kid at Stuyvesant High School in New York — hinged, to an extent, on lapses in fact checking.
Fact checking is the editorial process by which publications review stories for factual accuracy prior to publication. Magazine reporters submit a list of sources to the checkers with contact information or transcripts for anyone quoted in the story and sources for each of its factual points. The checker then goes through the piece, line by line, and verifies everything in it, from the GDP of Mauritius in 1928 to the spelling of the writer’s name. It is editorial grunt work, painstaking and thankless and performed by entry-level youngsters or people with a hard-backed disposition, the kind for whom the job’s willful ignorance (“Can you get me a source for that spelling of Barack Obama’s name?”) comes naturally. Fact checkers leave nothing to chance, accept no assertion at face value and, at their best, catch and correct many mistakes before they make it to the angry eyeballs of the reading public, famished for reportorial gaffes.
A veteran and accomplished magazine journalist was among those taking part in my Twitter chat that day. In his view, the fact checking process at Rolling Stone, or what he knew of it, seemed rather too chummy.
“Best fact checking I’ve faced,” he wrote, by way of contrast, “feels almost hostile. It’s not. It saves your ass.”
I have spent portions of my career not only as an editor and writer but also as a fact checker. This makes me something of a rarity in the publishing world, where most fact checkers remain in that role. It also means that I have an in-depth understanding of magazine fact checking, how it works and what it’s supposed to do. And I can say, with some authority, that my Twitter friend’s description is wrong in almost all its particulars.
First of all, let me be clear: Every part of the magazine editorial process feels almost hostile. That’s because it is. The hapless folks who make magazines today are no different from any other American worker. We live in an era of sublimated office rage. The checker attempting to verify that Brad Pitt wore black on the day, six months earlier, when you shadowed him on a morning stroll through Beverly Hills, should be held to no higher standards of behavior than anyone else.
An additional morsel of tension, however, can surface when the checker discovers larger quantities of errors in a story. I’m not talking about deception by the reporter. Real dishonesty, of The New Republic’s Stephen Glass or The New Yorker’s Jonah Lehrer variety, has been and remains extremely rare, despite media reports to the contrary. But honest mistakes are common. As are embarrassing missteps (Dec. 7, 1941, is generally regarded as a day that will live on in infamy; Dec. 7, 1948, less so), laziness in one’s math (“median” ≠ “average”) and shoddiness of sources (“I got it from Wikipedia”). The very things the checker is badly paid to uncover and bring to the reporter’s attention. Shocking as it may seem, reporters do not always appreciate the scrutiny of their efforts.
Years ago, in the early stages of my publishing career, I fact checked a story about oil exploration in Venezuela, written by a highly regarded journalist. (Fact checking side note: No correlation exists between the prior achievements of a journalist and the number of errors he or she makes in a given story. In fact, the opposite is typically true. The better known the journalist, the greater the number of mistakes.) This particular reporter had done well enough by himself to hire an assistant to handle the minor details of, well, reporting his story. (Second side note: Practically everything the reporter-with-assistant offers to a fact checker will be wrong, which will require not only corrections but also a structural overhaul and lots of rewriting. Perversely, this reporter, often communicating with the checker via the assistant, will resist the changes with the greatest gusto. Way of the world.)
Anyway, this story included some in-depth technical descriptions of heavy-oil drilling in Venezuela’s Orinoco Belt, along with equally intricate explanations of global oil price systems as well as a few minor ruminations on the politics of Venezuela’s now deceased President Hugo Chávez. Complicated stuff. Much of the story had to be rewritten (see second note), and as we neared publication, interactions between the reporter and me — his assistant stopped talking to me pretty early on — had grown a little strained. Eventually, things deteriorated to the point that we stopped communicating altogether and the reporter called his editor, essentially my boss, to complain.
I happened to be in the editor’s office as they spoke, via speakerphone. (OK, this didn’t just happen; the editor was the sort of good friend who took pleasure in the difficulty I was having, and he let me listen.) The reporter was upset about many things, but none more so than a certain technical alteration to the story’s language. The editor, as all editors do, had passed along the responsibility for the change, asserting that he had no choice. The fact checker, he said, had insisted on it. The reporter, in full-throated indignation, shouted, “Ted Ross is not an oil expert! Ted Ross is not an engineer! Ted Ross is an asshole!” This may be true. (I wasn’t asked to check it.) But the change was made.
So if the journalist I spoke to on Twitter about Rolling Stone has felt some hostility as he “faced” fact checking, I suspect he gave as much as he received. And if I sound as if I am complaining, it’s because I can tell many such stories.
But all of this is a quibble. The actual problem derives not from the Twitter reporter’s views on hostility but from the belief that fact checking had rescued a particularly vulnerable part of his anatomy. Maybe it had. Maybe it will do so again. But the key point is that it’s not the fact checker’s job to save his behind.
Magazine journalism is, in essence, a factory process. Stories move along an editorial assembly line that starts with a pitch and ends on a newsstand or a website. Along the way, workers tighten various screws, cut fatty lines and phrases, join joints of idea and opinion. Fact checking represents a single station in that production chain, but not one on which truth or accuracy can be manufactured. That has to happen before the product reaches the fact checker. Fact checkers can improve stories, hone the ideas, remove embarrassing blunders and help avoid lawsuits and misstatements. But reporting is best left to the reporters.
Jessica Pressler’s recently debunked story in New York magazine about Mohammed Islam, the high school student rumored to have earned $72 million while trading stocks, serves as a good example of how fact checking ought not to work. An editor’s note currently appended to the story attempts to explain the story’s failure. It mentions that the magazine dispatched a fact checker to Islam’s school to inspect some of his financial records, which ultimately proved to be falsified. “We were duped,” the note states. “Our fact checking process was obviously inadequate.”
This note will strike just about anyone who has worked at a magazine as a little weird. Not because the fact checker was misled. People make mistakes, and clearly at least one was made here, if not many more. What’s odd is that the fact checker was sent to the school and not the reporter. The standard process works as follows. Pressler meets with the subject. She collects his documentation and writes his story. Prior to publication she conveys Islam’s documentation to the fact checker, who reviews it and makes a judgment about the defensibility of the documentation’s truth and accuracy. Does the documentation say what Pressler says it says? Does it look real? If it turns out not to be real, does it look real enough that people will accept the mistake?
The checker shouldn’t be sent out to find anything. His or her job is to build a superstructure of plausibility around a story. If truth or accuracy arises from that, terrific. But ultimately, fact checkers have no particular responsibility to truth or even accuracy. They merely create and review documentation, helping to make a case for the story, one that can, if necessary, be used to defend the publication against charges of negligence or bad faith in instances just like these.
Does this seem like a cop-out? I hope not. But the notion that a fact checker stands athwart the line between truth and falsehood, yelling “Stop!” seems equally so. The checker represents a form of due diligence, an additional source of certainty. But there’s a reason the reporter goes out and reports that story. Reporters are the ones who need to be right.