Like Carl Zimmer, I can’t get past the George F. Will/WaPo climate change denial scandal. Carl’s latest piece delves deeper into the nature of journalism and fact-checking at the Post, and I’m going to weigh in with my observations of working at newspapers off and on for the past 22 years.
First, contrary to what many non-journalists seem to believe, George F. Will is a journalist. Just because he gets to add interpretation and value judgment to the factual material that serves as his raw material doesn’t mean he gets to flout the ethical parameters of the business. In other words, he is obliged to represent the source material he cites fairly and accurately. If he doesn’t then he’s violating his contract with his employer and his obligation to his readers.
Second, While monthly magazines such as Discover, the Atlantic, and Harpers regularly check facts in a thorough manner much or most of what they publish, the same is not the case at daily newspapers, where such practices would make a joke of the publication schedules and resulting deadlines. It’s simply not practical to call up every source and verify that the reporter has fairly and accurately quoted or paraphrased what they said or wrote in time for tomorrow’s paper, let alone the ever-rolling online deadlines.
This is why newspapers are considered the low icon on the totem pole of historical literature. Magazines and popular books are a step up because they can afford the time and resources to at least check the facts, and textbooks sit at the top because their authors can devote their entire professional lives to ensuring the facts are not only accurate, but presented in context. Not for nothing are newspapers called the first draft of history.
What surprises me is the Post‘s editors and ombudsman would claim that they do engage in fact-checking in the first place.
Here’s what the Post‘s new ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, wrote for Sunday’s paper:
My comments accurately conveyed what I had been told by editorial page editor Fred Hiatt — that multiple editors had checked Will’s sources, including the reference to the Arctic Climate Research Center…. My inquiry shows that there was fact-checking at multiple levels.
I am puzzled, to use a diplomatic euphemism, by Alexander’s choice of language. Copy editors at daily papers, including the Post, review a story for style, grammar, libel and logic. Period. If we’re lucky, a copy editor might know enough about a subject to catch errors of fact, but that’s rare and mostly a matter of the luck of the copy desk draw.
George F. Will, while senior enough to warrant his own team of editorial assistants, clearly doesn’t employ fact-checkers, but fact-suppliers, who then are responsible for producing source references after publication to defend the use of the material. None of this is fact-checking in the way most people, journalists and non-journalists alike, use the term.
Daily papers trust their reporters and columnists not to incorporate errors deliberately, and then rely on post-publication corrections to correct the record. That’s the way it works, for better or worse. So let’s call the Post not on its failure to fact-check, but for pretending that they do fact check.
Oh yes, and on not taking advantage of the opportunity to run a correction when there is no doubt that errors of fact, not interpretation, as Hiatt bizarrely claims, were made.