css.php

Q: How do journalists fact-check without using the internet?

A:

Remember, not everything is Google-able, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth verifying. Fact-checkers keep an arsenal of resources in their tool belts: a telephone, publication databases and a box of colored pencils.

Check out this excerpt from The New Yorker, where Daniel Radcliffe (who at the time was playing a fact-checker on Broadway in “The Lifespan of a Fact”) helped fact-check a restaurant review. The first step was for Radcliffe to underline everything in the review that was a “checkable fact” and then he got to work:

“Hi, Justin. I’m Dan, at The New Yorker,” Radcliffe began, twiddling a red pencil. “Some of these questions are going to feel very boring and prosaic to you,” he warned. “So bear with me. First off, your surname: is that spelled B-A-Z-D-A-R-I-C-H?” (It is.) “Does the restaurant serve guacamole?” (Yes.) “In the dip itself, would it be right to say there are chilies in adobo and cilantro?” (No adobo, but yes to the cilantro.) “Is there a drink you serve there, a Paloma?” (Yes.) “And that’s pale, pink, and frothy, I believe?” (Correct.) “Is brunch at your place—which, by the way, sounds fantastic—served seven days a week?” (Yes.) “That’s great news,” Radcliffe said, “for the accuracy of this, and for me.”

He took a breath. “Moving along: you also serve a beef-tartare tostada? (Correct.) “And that has some fried grasshopper on it?” (Actually, the insect is toasted over a wood fire, Bazdarich said. Radcliffe, his pencil trembling, scribbled “toasted.”) “And is that a whole grasshopper you get with each one, or is it sort of segments?” (Whole, but sometimes they break apart.) “Would it be correct to say that meat is a major theme?” Bazdarich seemed skeptical. Radcliffe, panicking, added, “Don’t worry, it is also made mention of that vegetarians or pescatarians can be very, very happy at your restaurants.”

Radcliffe hung up and exhaled. “I just fact-checked a fucking article!” he said. “Nothing I do today will be harder than that.” 

Can there be problems with asking a source to fact-check his or her own statements? Sure. Last weekend, The Atlantic published a 950-word correction to an article it retracted because it was based on fabrication. In one example, the reporter convinced a source, Sloane, to say she had a child to make her seem more relatable. When the fact-checker contacted Sloane to verify if she had a child she said, “Yes.” Eventually Sloane and the reporter fessed up to the truth, which then needed to be fact-checked again: “Through her attorney, Sloane informed us that she does not, in fact, have a son. We independently corroborated that Sloane does not have a son,” the editors wrote.

In addition to hopping on the horn (old timey speak for making a phone call), fack-checkers also use periodical databases (like LexisNexis) and research books. New York Times journalist Virginia Heffernan described the process in a column in 2010: 

Fact-checkers also consulted periodicals. The department subscribed to virtually everything and kept newspapers archived on microfilm. Cautionary tales circulated about errors that originated in The New York Times or The Washington Post, only to be replicated and memorialized forever by lazy magazine fact-checkers relying on single news stories. Proper protocol was to consult microfilm of the paper but then to check the next few days’ papers, also on microfilm, on the chance that a correction had been published. This was labor intensive, especially when there seemed to be bigger conceptual fish to fry in complex articles about, say, the O. J. Simpson defense.

While the internet may make some fact-checking faster, the volume of what needs fact-checking has increased and decreasing staff and budgets at news organizations can’t keep up. “Today, online operations often forego fact-checkers, and print publications have seen a steady decline in fact-checking resources over the past decade,” wrote Columbia Journalism Review in 2018. 

This puts the power back in your hands as the news consumer to pay close attention to what you are consuming and sharing.