A few weeks ago, I spoke by Zoom to a journalism class at Lakeside School in Seattle. The class is taught by a longtime friend who “imports” working journalists to talk about their real-world experiences.
Before the online gathering, the students submitted a list of excellent questions to help jump-start the discussion, including one I didn’t get to during a 45-minute session: whether we have “fact checkers” for our Methow Valley News stories.
Many large publications, particularly magazines, have fact-checkers who meticulously comb through stories to verify even the tiniest details. For articles that may run to tens of thousands of words, that is a lot of research. Meanwhile, the writers wait to hear what they need to explain or defend.
Newspapers haven’t historically had fact checkers per se. Typically, that task was handled first by an editor or editors who flagged anything that raised a question of authenticity or accuracy. The vetted and usually rewritten articles then moved on to the copy desk — the green eyeshade people who policed grammar, punctuation, spelling and internal consistency. They also knew a lot about local history, issues, institutions and personalities, and could be maddeningly imperious when it came to bracing reporters about where they got their information.
The copy desk was the last safeguard against mistakes large and small, and could unilaterally prevent stories from being printed. Writers both feared and utterly relied on copy editors’ expertise.
The copy editor is a vanishing breed. Brutal budget cutting has reduced copy desks to shadowy vestiges, and the job now usually involves newspaper design as well. The lack of editing shows, and readers notice. Worse, large newspaper chains have centralized copy editing and design functions at locations that may be thousands of miles from where the newspaper is published. Local knowledge is gone. Readers notice that as well.
At a small publication like the Methow Valley News, the editing process is compressed. Either I or Managing Editor Natalie Johnson read the stories submitted by staff or freelancers for content, structure, comprehension and factualness. And that’s it, until the stories are “proofed” on the pages before they are OKed for the printer. The proofreaders are also me and Natalie — the same eyes reviewing the same stories but in a different format (print versus on screen), which is helpful but not ideal. We used to employ proofreaders but our own necessary budget cutting has made that no longer feasible.
So the long answer to the fact checker question is, no we do not. We — the reporters and editors — are our own fact-checkers. The prime directive for reporters is to get it right in the first place. We catch a lot of things in our editing process. But inevitably, errors get past us — we are human, and working under intense deadline pressure. No publication, no matter how well-checked, is immune to mistakes. We hate getting things wrong, knowing that some readers will think we’re just stupid or careless. Sometimes it’s not our fault. Sources give us wrong information — not deliberately or misleadingly — more often than you’d think.
I thought of the Lakeside student’s question a few days later when I came across an industry article about a nationwide survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, posing the question: What makes a news story trustworthy?
Here’s the major takeaway, as summarized in the Pew article:
“Overall, broad majorities of U.S. adults say it is at least somewhat important to consider each of five surveyed factors when determining whether a news story is trustworthy or not: the news organization that publishes it (88%); the sources cited in it (86%); their gut instinct about it (77%); the person, if any, who shared it with them (68%); and the specific journalist who reported it (66%). Just 24% of adults say it’s at least somewhat important to consider a sixth factor included in the survey: whether the story has a lot of shares, comments or likes on social media.”
So: The publication matters, the sources matter, the writer matters. I have a feeling that the “gut instinct” factor is related directly to those other three. We work hard at being trustworthy. If your gut tells you we are, we’re doing our job.
Speaking of mistakes: I told you I’m a terrible typist. In last week’s column, I made an error in the very first sentence, which is painfully ironic because it was about a typing exercise. The goof was pointed out to me by two experienced journalists who have a keen eye for such things. I think I’m going to hide under my desk until I feel better.