Brooke Borel, author of The Chicago Guide to Fact-Checking, is a science writer and journalist. She is a contributing editor to Popular Science, and her writing has also appeared in such places as the Atlantic and Slate. She teaches fact-checking at the Brooklyn Brainery. Her first book was Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World, also published by the University of Chicago Press.
CMOS: “Fact-checking” seems to be all the rage these days, but as you say in your book, “research suggests it’s incredibly hard to change people’s minds even in the face of hard empirical evidence” (59). If that’s the case, what are some other good reasons for a company or publisher to spend time and money on checking facts?
BB: It is certainly hard to change people’s minds if they’re already deeply invested in an idea, but that doesn’t mean journalists and nonfiction writers shouldn’t put out the most accurate material possible. We’re writing the first draft of history and it’s important to have it right. When we write a piece that claims to be nonfiction, we’re making a sort of promise to the reader. We’re saying this is what happened. We should live up to that promise.
Of course, there are also other practical reasons to fact-check: reputation and liability. If you publish a piece that has a lot of lazy errors, readers—and editors or other folks who hire freelance writers—won’t trust your work. And if you publish a piece with big errors, from plagiarism to libel, you could face other problems. Plagiarism could sink your reputation. Libel and other legal issues could get you sued, sometimes for many millions of dollars. Fact-checkers help prevent these catastrophes.
CMOS: Much is made over the unreliability of information on the Internet, and yet it seems that online sources must surely be a boon to fact-checkers. Should fact-checkers use the Internet, and if so, what are some basic guidelines for evaluating the credibility of information found online?
BB: The Internet cuts both ways: it’s a rich source of both information and misinformation. Savvy fact-checkers will be able to dig through the web and evaluate resources there, just as they should be able to evaluate print sources. One of my favorite guides for evaluating online sources comes from journalist Michelle Nijhuis, writing for The Last Word on Nothing. Nijhuis says to ask yourself “(1) Who is telling me this? (2) How does he or she know this? (3) Given #1 and #2, is it possible that he or she is wrong? (4) If the answer to #3 is ‘yes,’ find another, unrelated source. (5) Repeat until answer to #3 is ‘pretty f–ing unlikely.’”*
CMOS: It seems that almost every political article relies on “unnamed sources” or “a senior official who did not wish to be identified.” How does that work within a news organization? Does only the reporter know the source, and does the publisher simply trust the reporter? How would a fact-checker confirm the story?
BB: The fact-checkers I interviewed who deal with anonymous sources told me that fact-checkers will also have the contact information for anonymous sources—which they will keep confidential—and they will contact a source to confirm sections of the story. The checker should also corroborate the information. For example, if the anonymous source says something about a specific person or institution, the checker should give the person or institution a chance to corroborate or otherwise respond. The checker should also ask the author/editor why the source is anonymous. It may be because the source is a whistle-blower or for some reason needs protection—maybe someone’s job or even personal safety will be at jeopardy if anyone reveals their identity. In these cases, the checker should proceed with care in order to maintain any promises the journalist/publication made to the source, while also confirming that what the source has said is accurate. It’s a tricky balance, for sure.
CMOS: What does a fact-checker do when the facts are technically true, but the conclusion drawn from them seems faulty?
BB: Ideally, the checker will raise these concerns with the editor and/or journalist, depending on whom the checker works with directly (it varies from one publication to the next). If they can all agree on changes that will make the story more accurate, great. But sometimes, the editor and/or journalist will override the checker’s suggested changes. That’s why it’s important for checkers to keep meticulous records of their queries and concerns and of who made the final decision to publish the story anyway.
CMOS: Can fact-checkers get into serious legal trouble if they make a mistake?
BB: I’m not an expert on legal precedence, but there have been cases where a fact-checker has been deposed—in the ongoing Rolling Stone trial over the story “A Rape On Campus,” for example. The focus of a lawsuit, however, will usually involve the publisher of an inaccurate story and the author of that story, rather than the checker.
Of course, not all mistakes will result in a lawsuit. The higher the stakes, the greater the legal liability—misspelling a name or misinterpreting a statistic won’t likely draw a lawsuit, while writing inaccurate and defamatory information about a source might.
CMOS: What do you see as the future of fact-checking?
BB: It’s hard to say, but I see a couple of trends right now. On one hand, fact-checking has become increasingly popular in new areas of media, from long-form radio shows to documentaries. On the other, a lot of publications are either web-only or are legacy media with an online presence. Collectively, they’re publishing a countless number of articles every day at a fast clip. There’s no way to hire third party fact-checkers to work on all of these stories—it’s just not possible time-wise, or money-wise. So while I do see more fact-checking in new areas of media, I also see a lot of stories that don’t even have the luxury of good editing or copyediting, let alone a fact-check. Here, it will become increasingly important for writers to double-check their work before they press Publish.
*Michelle, Nijhuis, “The Pocket Guide to Bullshit Prevention,” The Last Word on Nothing, April 29, 2014.
Photo: Michael Wasilewski.