Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe
The mistakes journalists make that actually bother us—as distinct from the "mistakes" that incite readers to curse our names and demand our heads—are simple things: a faulty statistic, a date a year off, a name misspelled. A false fact, in short. Everything needs to be checked.
And double-checked—because every reporter makes mistakes. And I think it's safe to say—on the basis of a decade spent watching journalism retrench financially and reading the results—that the mistakes we make these days are more likely to see the light of day because there's next to nothing left in the way of fail-safe systems to eliminate them. The ranks of copy readers, at the Reader and everywhere else, are a wisp of what they were.
That's why, in a recent series of pieces critical of the New York Times, I put the blame for stories marred by egregious lapses of logic not merely on the writers of those stories but also on the Times institutionally for not providing editors who might have saved the writers from themselves. The best writers can get so caught up in whatever point they're trying to make that they blind themselves to why they aren't making it. It's up to an editor—expecting no thanks and getting none (maybe tomorrow)—to step in and say This is stupid! If they don't readers will.
These were thoughts I had in mind the other day as I read a news release headlined "American Press Institute announces major project to improve fact-checking journalism." Money well spent! was my first reaction. The Democracy Fund had just awarded the API a grant of up to $400,000 over two years to "support research to improve political fact checking."
What the Democracy Fund has in mind is research into ways journalists can identify false facts originating from without, not within. "Helping citizens know what is true and what is not is at the core of journalism's purpose. Almost everything in public life flows from this foundation—understanding, common ground and a working political system," said API's executive director, Tom Rosenstiel, who'd given me the head's up about the grant. The Democracy Fund's Tom Glaisyer added, "Fact-checking of statements made by politicians and pundits is emerging as a growing, and we believe, essential practice in political reporting. The American Press Institute will use its extensive networks within the news media, along with its credibility as a research group, to advance, refine, and defend this vital journalistic practice."
API and the Democracy Fund are fighting half the battle. Identifying lies and the lying liars who tell them is a solemn—nay, sacred—journalism function. But every false fact doesn't originate with a political operative's mendacity. Journalism also needs to keep a closer eye on itself. A conversation that I found on the API website with Craig Silverman, editor of the Verification Handbook and author of the Poynter Institute's "Regret the Error" column, deepened my concern. Sharing his views on "correction strategies," Silverman said a big problem with digital journalism is that information spreads like wildfire, and when that information is erroneous and is corrected, the correction rarely reaches the same audience. "People almost never come back to a story they previously read, which means they won't see the correction," said Silverman.
"If you add a correction to a story, you also need to push it out to the platforms where you promoted the initial piece. You need to flag it for people, and try to help the correction spread by identifying influential people who may have shared, retweeted, and so on the original. That's what we have to do if we really care about people getting the correct information."
What Silverman was saying is that once the damage is done, it can be mitigated but never completely undone. Digital error is like atomic energy; when the radiation breaks containment it can't be rebottled. So multiple and redundant systems of skepticism, challenge, and reexamination need to be present in every newsroom to keep error from escaping in the first place. And of course journalism has moved in an exactly opposite direction. The demand made by digital journalism for instant publication is almost irresistible. And the content monitors pacing the newsrooms with their bullshit detectors and standing orders to check every gauge twice have been laid off.