A fact-checking primer.

Answers to your questions about the news.
May 23 2003 2:40 PM

Who Uses Fact Checkers, Anyway?

The Jayson Blair scandal continues to roil the New York Times, which is reviewing the work of several stars. Today, the newspaper published a correction regarding a June 15, 2002, story by Pulitzer-Prize-winner Rick Bragg, who failed to credit a stringer for doing the bulk of the reporting. Why didn't the Gray Lady's fact checkers catch these slip-ups before they ran?

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Because, like virtually every other daily, the Times doesn't use fact checkers to verify stories before publication. According to the paper's "Guidelines on Our Integrity," writers are usually solely responsible for checking such details as spellings, geographical locations, and titles. The research desk sometimes assists with more esoteric queries, and when a deadline is particularly pressing, a reporter may ask the copy desk to confirm a fact. But on the whole, the accuracy burden sits squarely on the reporter's shoulders.

No professional organization keeps statistics on the percentage of newspaper stories that are fact-checked, but the consensus is that it's quite low. The sheer volume of articles would overwhelm any research department, and there is too little time between writing and publication—often just a matter of hours. Exceptions are sometimes made for large-scale investigative pieces, which aren't as time-sensitive; they are checked primarily for legal reasons, to ward off potential libel suits. Recently, a few papers, such as the San Jose Mercury News, have experimented with fact-checking the most complicated science or technology stories by submitting them to expert advisers for review.

The fact-checking rules are quite different in the magazine world, where pre-publication vetting is the norm. Writers are typically asked to annotate their work, to indicate where each fact came from. In addition, a list of sources must be submitted, along with contact information and any relevant documents. Guidelines vary, but the most meticulous magazines do not allow writers to submit other articles—often obtained via databases like Nexis—as acceptable sources. Primary sources are required.

Interns carry the fact-checking load at smaller publications, while the more prominent weeklies and monthlies favor professional research departments, staffed by a mix of career checkers and young, aspiring writers (not unlike the fictionalized New Yorker fact desk immortalized in Bright Lights, Big City). Magazine checkers do not verify quotes word-for-word, but everything else is up for nitpicking; a magazine researcher, for example, would have asked the family of Pfc. Jessica Lynch if their home did, indeed, overlook "tobacco fields and cattle pastures," as Jayson Blair fibbed.

Of course, that's not to say magazine checkers are faultless. New Republic prevaricator Stephen Glass fooled his publication's checkers by asking that they not contact his "secret" sources, lest these imaginary informants turn skittish. On the other hand, the hoax was exposed by Forbes Digital Tool reporter Adam L. Penenberg, who relied heavily on the assistance of Forbes researcher Linda Stinson.

Bonus Explainer: Think fact checking is an easy gig? Try this quiz to see if you're ready for the research big leagues.

Explainer thanks the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.

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