Newsweek ditched its fact-checkers in 1996, then made a major error

“We, like other news organisations today, rely on our writers to submit factually accurate material,” Newsweek spokesman Andrew Kirk told Politico’s Dylan Byers.

Byers had asked whether Newsweek has fact-checkers. He was asking because, in the process of highlighting factual errors contained in Niall Ferguson’s current Newsweek cover story about Obama, The New York Times’ Paul Krugman had mused, “I guess they don’t do fact-checking” at Newsweek.

No, Newsweek does not do fact-checking.

Newsweek ditched its checkers over 15 years ago.

Time Inc. Senior Vice President of Communications Ali Zelenko said by email that Time magazine has “both a fact-checking department and research department, both staffed with trained and experienced full-time employees.” (See the correction at the bottom of this post about my initial, mistaken statement that Time doesn’t have dedicated fact-checkers.)

There used to be full-time fact-checkers at many, if not most, large American consumer magazines, along with many trades and smaller publications. A checking department was a sign you were a serious editorial operation. It was a badge of honor.

Today, it’s viewed as a luxury.

Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Esquire, Wired, Popular Mechanics … these are some of the titles that still apply a rigorous level of fact-checking. By that I mean they employ staffers or well-trained freelancers to check material. (It’s not fact-checking if you get an intern or junior employee to check work without offering proper training and oversight; yes, this happens far too often.)

Which magazine has the largest fact-checking department in the world? Der Spiegel in Germany does, by far.

Now that Ferguson’s cover story is being ripped for factual errors, many seem to be discovering to their amazement that Newsweek does not have fact-checkers.

Fittingly, the decline of magazine checking departments began in the mid-to-late 1990s, when Newsweek traded fact-checkers for reporter-researchers, a hybrid role that does not perform the same function.

That decision led to a very embarrassing and potentially life-threatening error on Newsweek’s part just months after it got rid of its checkers.

I detailed that incident and the decline of traditional magazine fact-checking in my book about media errors and accuracy. Below is the relevant excerpt about how and why Newsweek stopped fact-checking.

Note: The excerpt below includes the incorrect statement that Time closed its research department. It did begin checking fewer stories in 1996, and relied on authors to check their own work, but the magazine still kept fact-checkers on staff. This error came to light after this post was published, and I will be issuing a correction for the book. I hope to include the corrected information in an upcoming ebook release.

Death by a Thousand Cuts

Time magazine, as well as Newsweek, eliminated its research department in the fall of 1996 to create the reporter-researcher role and rely on an “author-checked” system. Pure fact checking was abandoned and fact-checkers displaced in favor of hybrid multitaskers who could check parts of stories while also reporting, and occasionally writing. Like the merging of some proofreading functions with the duties of newspaper copy editors, the switch to reporter-researchers diminished the overall effectiveness of quality control.

At the time, Newsweek’s assistant managing editor said the decision to offer its checkers a buyout or a job change to the hybrid position wasn’t for budget reasons. “The people who used to be fact-checking are happier in their new jobs, and now we have more reporters.” Tellingly, not long after the change, in early May 1997, Newsweek suffered one of the most serious reporting errors in its history when a special issue, “Your Child,” told readers that infants—even as young as five months old—could safely feed themselves zwiebacks and chunks of raw carrot. This error could have resulted in a fatal choking incident, so the magazine recalled several hundred thousand copies and rushed corrected versions to newsstands, hospitals, and doctors’ offices.

It ran a correction on page 10 of its May 12 issue that read,

A chart entitled “Building Healthy Habits” on page 58 contained a serious error. Five-month-old babies should not be fed zwiebacks or raw carrot chunks. Though many infants are ready to try pureed solids between 4 to 6 months, raw carrots and other hard foods could cause choking.

“We are very sorry about this mistake,” Newsweek editor in chief and president Richard M. Smith said in the correction. “And we are taking extraordinary measures to correct it.”

According to the magazine’s spokesperson, a copy editor who was editing two articles at the same time introduced the error.

Just as Newsweek’s lack of checking quickly came back to haunt it, Time also felt the loss. By the summer of 1997, Marta Dorion, then Time’s chief of reporters, admitted to the Columbia Journalism Review just a few months after the change that already “there have been some bad errors that wouldn’t have happened under the old-fashioned system.” She said the decision to cut back on checking was “entirely budgetary. These systems cost money.”

Related: In praise of fact-checkers (The Atlantic)

Correction: This post originally stated that Time magazine no longer has a research department and doesn’t employ full-time fact-checkers. That was incorrect and was based on reporting done for my book, which was first published in 2007. Time did scale back its fact-checking process in the late 1990s, but it did not end the practice. It still has a research department. It was my mistake to not apply additional verification to information in the book. I will write a follow-up post about the experience of putting my book excerpt up publicly and subsequently having it fact-checked.

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  • http://twitter.com/DesireeFerenczi Desiree Ferenczi

    If Time has a fact-checking department, how come no one caught Fareed Zakaria’s plagiarism?

  • http://www.CraigSilverman.ca CraigSilverman

    Yes, a healthy dose of irony. I seriously regret the error.

  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    The information about feeding raw carrot chunks to babies is not a “fact-checking” mistake. Anyone not in a coma who read this should have spotted it and fixed it. Blaming “the desk” for introducing a mistake is just a weak way to justify not sending things through a desk to be improved.

    This site bears as much blame as anyone for trivializing the contributions of copy editors. Here, it is the infamous approach of claiming they should be able to perform numerous tasks without quality suffering. The real blame, as always, should go to A”CE”S, which has dropped the ball for almost 15 years and still employs a rogue, design-focused blogger as its main resource for justifying why some organization or other needs a copy editor.

  • http://promodsharma.com/ Promod Sharma

    The lack of fact-checking in a major publication like Newsweek is surprising and disappointing. No system will be 100% accurate but having no system is hardly the solution.

    We get warnings when there’s no lifeguard on duty (even though we can see that for ourselves). Maybe articles need a warning: “This article has not been checked for accuracy. Believe at your own risk.”

  • Tessa

    Pretty serious correction for a story on fact checking. #irony

  • Tessa

    Pretty serious correction for a story on fact checking. #irony

  • T.Ard

    Speaking of zero fact checking, I would love to know what’s going on in
    Vanity Fair’s fact checking department. For a journalist of Mark
    Bowden’s stature and experience, this is pretty shocking.

    http://sprocket-trials.blogspot.com/2012/08/fact-checking-mark-bowdens-curious.html

  • Anonymous

    Newsweak

  • http://www.facebook.com/rogerowengreen Roger Green

    even then, they discovered that multitasking was highly overrated.