Why reporters don’t fact-check assertions and how the Web could change that

The Atlantic | Nieman Journalism Lab | Reuters
A week after the Internet turned on New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane for asking whether reporters should fact-check assertions, a few people explore why journalists, frankly, don’t check out everything they publish in news stories.

Conor Friedersdorf writes that newspapers are set up to provide two things independently: nonjudgmental and inconclusive news reporting, and opinion writing that helps people sort out truth from fiction. The problem with that model:

Almost no one gets their information in a bundle from a single news outlet. The editors of The New York Times and The Washington Post still create “an album” of important information every day. But fewer and fewer people consume it that way. …

Most folks who read a news story wherein a crucial matter is contested are never going to read complementary commentary about that same subject to figure out what’s actually happening. Unless that content is included, or at least linked, it’s effectively useless to the vast majority of people who come across it. In this environment, newsmakers have an incentive to lie. Orders of magnitude more people will see a false assertion that is printed, unchallenged, in the New York Times than will read why it is misleading or false, whether the take-down happens on the Op-Ed page or on the Caucus.

Lucas Graves asks whether there’s a good reason to keep fact-checking separate from straight reporting. One reason: Judging by the level and intensity of attacks on fact-checkers, “it has to be acknowledged that this is a deeply polarizing activity”:

The hope for building fact-checks into everyday news reports is that it would push political reporters to be more thoughtful and reflexive about their own work — to leave out quotable-but-dubious claims, to resist political conflict as the default frame, and in general to avoid the pat formulations that are so ably managed by political actors. But inevitably, all of us will be disappointed, even pissed off, by some of these routine fact-checks — and perhaps all the more so when they’re woven into the story itself.

Felix Salmon sees a corollary to blogging in this debate. Blogging, he writes, isn’t as vibrant as it once was:

But this is in some ways a good thing, since it’s a symptom of bloggish sensibilities making their way into the main news report. As we find more voice and attitude and context and external linking in news stories, the need for blogs decreases. … With any luck, what’s happening to blogs will also happen to fact-checking.

As fact-check columns proliferate and become impossible to ignore, reporters will start incorporating their conclusions in their reporting, and will eventually reach the (shocking!) point at which they habitually start comparing what politicians say with what the truth of the matter actually is. In other words, the greatest triumph of the fact-checking movement will come when it puts itself out of work, because journalists are doing its job for it as a matter of course.

Related: Keller: ‘I wonder if Art hasn’t confused matters a bit’ (Poynter) | The 5 most interesting new responses to Brisbane’s ‘Truth Vigilante’ post (Poynter) | Krugman, liberals argue PolitiFact’s Lie of the Year is not a lie (Poynter) | PolitiFact defends its Lie of the Year (PolitiFact)

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  • Anonymous

    I was taught in J-school that if someone tells you the sun is shining that you should look out the window to make sure. What passes for balance in contemporary journalism is quoting someone’s lie then quoting a counter-lie from the “other side”. That’s not journalism. That’s stenography.

  • Anonymous

    I will tell you exactly why reporters are no longer checking facts. Editors have been fired en masse, ditto headline writers, and the writers themselves are being paid a fraction of what they were being paid three years ago, if they are being paid at all.

    Ruined lives? They don’t care. Family to support? Boo-hoo.

    The media companies are run by men who eat at restaurants where the bill for dinner is more than they pay for a reporter’s weekly salary.

    The media is in the business of profit first, my friends.  Remember that.

    If you want facts, buy an encyclopedia. 

    E. Clunk

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_F2M24V5DSGDKXXYFVMEOBKVTIY doug

    Facts have to be checked. Is it better to have a well-read story that is wrong, or one that is correct and comes in a few hours later? If a site continuously runs incorrect stories people will stop going there for news and its traffic will decline so in reality the excuse that one will get scooped is a fallacy.

    In addition, a story that is wrong is not only useless, but dangerous. It could ruin lives. Many people who claim to be journalists today do not realize the power that they control. Readers believe that what is printed or posted online is factual because they assume the reporter did his or her homework on the issue.

  • http://esarcasm.com dantynan

    Yes, journos should check out all the facts before they hit ‘publish’. Bloggers too. And in a perfect world they would. But stop and think about that for a moment. Say you are writing a 1000-word piece on an internet deadline. You might have two hours to do it; you might have four. But you know your competitors are going to get it out there if you don’t, so you’ve got to crank on it if you want a hope of getting onto the Google News page and getting traffic. 

    How many facts are buried in that 1000-word piece? How many of those will you have time to check? What constitutes an authoritative unbiased source for checking? How many do you have to look at before you are confident an assertion is or isn’t true? Do you trust what you find on a Web site, or do you call people to make sure, and if so, how many?

    While you’re doing all of that, your competitors just ran with the story. Fact checked or not, they’re getting the traffic and presumably the ad revenue you might have gotten if you weren’t waiting on that final callback before hitting ‘publish.’ 

    So this is the problem. The Internet (and cable news) rewards speed above accuracy. What’s your incentive for getting the facts right when nobody’s reading you because you were too late?


  • http://twitter.com/sharon000 Sharon Machlis

    Journalists shouldn’t fact-check because it’s “polarizing”? Really??? By that warped logic, perhaps we shouldn’t report about controversial subjects at all. Passing along what someone says when it’s clearly a lie isn’t journalism, it’s stenography.

  • Anonymous

    I regularly read reportage in mainstream media, esp. the Post, which obviously could have benefited from a rather brief Google search. There’s no excuse for the shoddy reporting that routinely makes it into the MSM.