Time magazine fact-checking mistake shows value of fact-checking in public
This week brought a mix of embarrassment, shame and unexpected satisfaction for me.
Wednesday morning, I heard from two people who told me by email I had made a big mistake in my post, "Newsweek ditched its fact-checkers in 1996, then made a major error."
While the focus of the piece was Newsweek, I made several references to the current state of fact-checking at Time magazine. My piece also included an excerpt from my 2007 book, "Regret the Error." The excerpt retold the story of when Newsweek changed its fact-checking procedures, and soon after suffered a serious mistake.
My post, and the book excerpt I used as source material, said Time and Newsweek "ditched" their checking departments back in the late 1990s.
I was wrong. Wrong in my post and wrong in my book. Time did change some of its checking procedures back in 1996, but it did not abandon the practice. Today it still has a research department. It fact-checks.
First, an obvious point: there is always a healthy dose of irony whenever one of my posts about errors, corrections or fact-checking includes a mistake. Even more so when I write that a publication got rid of fact-checking, only to display my own shortcomings when it comes to ... fact-checking.
Second obvious point: I should not have assumed my book text was correct. I should have called Time and checked with them. The error I made back when I wrote the book in 2006-'07 was compounded this week when I again failed to check with the source.
So, of course, I corrected the post and added a note about the mistake in the excerpt. I'm now trying to see if I can fix the relevant passage in the electronic edition of my book.
There's also another mistake that I need to fix: the book includes a misspelling of Marta Dorion, a former Time staffer and manager. That was caught by a Poynter editor before the post was published.
Poynter.org doesn't have separate copy editors, fact checkers and line editors. One editor reads each story before publication and reviews it for typos, spelling, grammar, AP style, flow, clarity and any ethical red flags.
"One of the other things editing can do is help us check our assumptions," says Julie Moos, Director of Poynter Online. "In this case, we assumed that if something was published in a book it must be true. We also assumed that if a fact was true five years ago (when the book was published) it must still be true."
This is a good reminder to use the editing process to ask: How do we know? We might have asked: How do we know Time doesn't currently have fact-checkers? How do we know Newsweek doesn't?
Pros and the crowd
This experience offered a mini case study of what GigaOm writer Mathew Ingram addressed in his recent article, "Why it's better for fact checking to be done in public."
Ingram argues that there is value in having the process of fact-checking done in the open:
If what we are after is more transparency when it comes to journalism, public fact-checking and debate is an integral part of that process.
My book has been in circulation for five years, but I was never made aware of the errors in this chapter. This, in spite of the fact that the book includes a Statement of Accuracy which outlines the measures taken to verify information, a clear statement that there will inevitably be mistakes, and an invitation for readers to contact me about errors.
I even included an Error Report Form in the back of the book that people can use to submit mistakes. They could also do so on my old Regret the Error website. (We're bringing my archives into Poynter.org, and so I'm in the process of transferring my book site to a new domain, since RegretTheError.com now redirects here.)
After the book was published, I heard from many readers and as a result made 12 corrections to the paperback edition of my book.
I felt the system for the book worked pretty well. But the likelihood of an error being identified was linked to the number of people who read the book. The bigger the audience, the bigger the opportunity for errors to be identified and corrected. By making a small excerpt public and exposing it to a new audience, it took less than 24 hours for a notable error to be identified.
This reinforces Ingram's point.
At the same time, this example reinforces the value of pre-publication checking. Of professional editing. My Poynter colleague Andrew Beaujon spotted the misspelling of Dorion and alerted me to that.
Both a trained journalist and helpful readers played a role in surfacing the mistakes in my book. The two worked well in concert.
That's what makes this embarrassing episode partly satisfying. Knowing about a mistake means you can fix it. Today I can work to fix the book and spread the facts.
That started with correcting my post. It continued when we tweeted the correction from the Poynter account, and I did the same from my personal Twitter feed.
Soon, Reuters' Jack Shafer retweeted my correction (and amusingly added "Correx of the week!" to it), which helped it spread. I found myself feeling better each time it was retweeted. With each RT, I was informing more people of my error and the correct information.
After years of being hidden in a book, my errors were brought into the open, and now the true facts are spreading.