In Praise of Fact-checking

The media has been making plenty of apologies lately, for articles that caused a splash and, just as quickly, were exposed as fraudulent. First, it was Rolling Stone‘s exposé about rape on college campuses, and now it’s New York Magazine’s tiny feature on the 17-year-old Stuyvesant High School student who claimed to have made $72 million in the stock market. Turns out the kid made it all up.

Each is a case of a respected publication dropping the ball on verifying the truth of a piece. It’s hard not to conclude that the ever-more-precarious economics of journalism have created a need for speed and controversy that pushed these pieces along farther than they should have gone. But both cases also shine a light on some of the most important, least celebrated workers in journalism: fact-checkers.

Readers don’t think much about fact-checkers until there’s a big error in a piece. It’s rare that things end up at the point that publications are issuing apologies. And that’s because, at many venerable outlets, there’s a whole line of people — writers, editors, copy-editors, fact-checkers — that review an article before its publication. Much of their work makes the final product sing.

In this year’s smart business book Invisibles: the Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Self-Promotion, writer David Zweig, a former fact-checker for Condé Nast who spent four years at Vogue, notes that for a fact-checker, “the better he did the job, the more he disappeared.” In an earlier 2012 piece for The Atlantic, Zweig calls the fact-checker “the brakes on editors and writers racing toward deadline intent on dazzling readers at the expense of edifying them. He is the schoolmarm tsk tsking. He is the public defender for the unrepresented, the downtrodden, the forgotten — the facts.”

In this age of spin, national magazines, are some of the few places left standing that employ fact-checkers; an article published on The Atlantic this spring notes how the undefined, often hazy role of fact-checking in nonfiction book publishing puts the responsibility on the writer to make sure that everything’s correct (with Mac McClelland, the author of next year’s Irritable Hearts, paying out of pocket to make sure her book checked out). “What many readers don’t realize is that fact-checking has never been standard practice in the book-publishing world at all,” writes Kate Newman.

But there’s an honor to fact-checking that we simply don’t get to see on a day-to-day basis. In Invisibles, Zweig writes about Peter Canby, the head of fact-checking for The New Yorker. A typical day for him involves: looking over a journalist’s notes on a piece to make sure they match; double-checking quotes from a “blind” source, an ex-CIA agent; meeting with a writer and an attorney over a possible libel case; and telling a new hire that in order to fact-check Prometheus accurately, she’s going to need to understand the vocabulary of genetic coding. Canby heads a team of 16 fact-checkers. Over half of them are fluent in a second language, and the majority have advanced degrees.

Fact-checkers are highly trained, capable people who are able to bear the responsibility of high-stakes, detail-heavy work that rarely receives praise from the outside world. It’s not the most glamorous job in publishing by any means, and it’s often a stepping stone for journalists to move up to the next level. But it’s an art, with its own value — it keeps the wheels running, and it shines a light on the truth.