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Why it’s better for fact-checking to be done in public

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There has been a lot of sound and fury this week about a Newsweek cover story written by Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, a piece that many critics — including New York Times columnist Paul Krugman — argue should never have been published because of the factual and other errors they say it contains. Meanwhile Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has written a post praising the nameless fact-checkers who prevent mistakes from appearing in magazines like his and Time. But isn’t there a public value to seeing mistakes that are made before the fact-checkers get to them and seeing them corrected? I would argue that there is. If what we are after is more transparency when it comes to journalism, public fact-checking and debate is an integral part of that process.

Just to recap for those who haven’t been following the drama, Ferguson — a professor of history at Harvard and the author of several books — wrote a cover story for Newsweek (which merged with Tina Brown’s online entity the Daily Beast in 2010) in which he argued that President Obama has failed to fulfill a number of promises related to the U.S. economy and therefore doesn’t deserve to be supported for reelection. The piece triggered an outpouring of criticism from a number of observers and complaints that Ferguson’s argument was based on faulty numbers and deliberate misinterpretations of the evidence.

Why is it wrong to outsource fact-checking?

Politico writer Dylan Byers has been one of those holding Ferguson’s feet to the fire for the story, saying the writer used a flawed argument based on skewed figures and arguing that Newsweek should never have let the piece see the light of day. As Byers put it:

“Newsweek has stayed silent on the controversy, choosing instead to ‘monitor the debate’ as if the editor and publisher bear no responsibility for what appears in their pages.”

Coates, meanwhile, said in his Atlantic tribute to fact-checkers that what the magazine had really done was “unwittingly outsourced its fact-checking to the web.” But is that such a bad thing? The Ferguson piece has been thoroughly fact-checked, debunked and otherwise dismantled by Byers and a host of others, including Krugman — and the Atlantic, which does a line-by-line critique of the piece and the flaws in the historian’s logic — as well as Andrew Sullivan at Newsweek’s sister publication the Daily Beast and Matthew Yglesias at Slate.

My point is this: Isn’t it better to have those criticisms and counterarguments out where readers can see them and inform themselves if they wish? And if Ferguson is the type of academic who plays fast and loose with the truth in order to make his argument, as Atlantic writer James Fallows seems to suggest he might be, isn’t it better that we know that by seeing his arguments in as clear a light as possible? If those errors or logical inconsistencies had been fixed by nameless fact-checkers at Newsweek, all we would really know is that the magazine has a good fact-checking department.

One of the most controversial aspects of the idea of “news as a process” is that in some cases it involves distributing information before the truth of that information is fully known, something I have written about before as it applied to what Andy Carvin of National Public Radio was doing during the revolutions of the Arab Spring: Carvin says he used his Twitter followers as a kind of “public newsroom” that helped him confirm and verify information coming from Egypt and elsewhere. In a similar way, Reddit and Twitter have been used as public fact-checking engines and have shown they can be very effective.

It’s valuable to see errors made and corrected

Some, including former Poynter writer Steve Myers, have made the argument that some kinds of news — such as the shooting at a theater in Aurora, Colo., where the gunman was initially linked to the Tea Party political group — shouldn’t be treated as a process, because of the risk of making serious mistakes. And others have argued that an ABC News report this week about director Tony Scott (who committed suicide) having an inoperable brain tumor should never have made it to air, because it turned out not to be true.

Obviously, no one wants publishers or media companies of any kind to just print, air or distribute information they know to be wrong. But in cases like the Aurora shooting and the revolutions in Egypt, the reality is that the availability of “true” information is in a constant state of flux. And in cases like Ferguson’s Newsweek piece, the validity of an argument like the one he is trying to make is also open to interpretation, as Krugman himself admits. So why shouldn’t that interpretation be exposed and debated in public instead of behind closed doors in some editorial office?

One point some critics have made about such an approach — including during a Twitter debate I touched off a few months ago when I asked why we need editors — is that not everyone will see or read the corrections to a report or will have the time to follow up on the allegations about a piece like Ferguson’s, and that is undoubtedly true. That is why it’s almost as important to have places that collect those kinds of things, whether it’s “Regret the Error” author Craig Silverman’s column at Poynter or next to the source of the original report, as with the Daily Beast’s list of criticisms and outlets debunking Ferguson’s piece.

In his post, Krugman describes how when he writes a column for the New York Times, he has to submit a list of links and sources for the claims he makes, which an editor then uses to test his arguments. In an ideal world, I think we’d be better off if the columnist just added those links to his column and let his readers fact-check the validity of his claims — and if others did the same. To paraphrase Jeff Jarvis: “Do your best, and let the internet do the rest.”

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Hans Gerwitz and Shutterstock/Swellphotography

36 Responses to “Why it’s better for fact-checking to be done in public”

  1. Gene Venable

    Ever hear of birthing? Of course you have, it’s the movement based on the false claim that Obama wasn’t born in the US. It has been fact-checked on many occasions, on public, yet refuses to die. I submit that if the first claims had been privately checked and suppressed, it would never have become the zombie idea it is today

  2. tech9iner

    Your pop-up wordpress widgets are the bain to promoting your appreciated articles!?
    Whilst attempting to share this article on Google+ the instant one attempts to click into the g+ input field, your widget popup senses this as a close.. utterly defeating the purpose of offering a ‘+1’ button in the first place!?

  3. I think the problem is that once its out there, no matter how much others correct it, the article provides fuel/ammunition for people who want to believe the inaccurate assertions. I have a Facebook friend, an ultra-conservative, who was just so impressed that Newsweek of all places called out Obama. (See even this liberal magazine knows he sucks). When it was pointed out that Newsweek also just trashed Romney and it was all empty noise, he said “no, the article trashing Romney was nonsense, but the anti-Obama piece used sound facts and figures “. When I pointed out that those figures have been uniformly smacked down by a variety of publications, he points to Ferguson’s self-defense. When I said there are articles showing that the self-defense was even weaker than original piece, my conservative friend’s reply is that all of those articles are untrustworthy, they’re written by Columbia Journalism School types.

    So according to my Facebook pal’s analysis, Newsweek (???) is apparently the only reliable source, but only so far the anti-Obama article , we can’t believe them on the anti-Romney stuff.

    Now clearly, this guy is not going to vote for Obama anyway, but now we have the added pain of him waving around crazy articles to support his even crazier positions. THAT’s why magazines owe it to all of us to fact check.

  4. Mathew, I don’t believe transparency trumps truth in journalism. As a lifelong student of journalism, sure, I’m interested in what goes on behind the scenes. But as a consumer of news I don’t really care about how the sausage is made; i just want to know that it’s done and I won’t get sick ingesting it.

    I’ve been a copy editor for many years and know all about the fact-checking that Krugman describes for the NYT. I got paid well to do this. As a reader, I don’t to be clicking links all over the place to verify the truth of what I’m reading. That’s the content generator’s job!

  5. carsonbuckingham

    Having facts checked by the public can be a bad thing in that it does a number on the credibility of the magazine in question. Additionally, the public should not be expected to work for the magazine for free, in finding their errors. If errors are getting by the fact checkers, then they either not good at their jobs, or are lazy. Fact checking takes a long time and required patience. If mags aren’t giving their fact checkers enough lead time to do their jobs properly, then that could be another reason errors are getting through. This problem needs to be corrected internally. I won’t read a magazine beyond a single issue if I discover the facts are wrong. How can you then believe anything printed in that publication?

    Why can’t people just do their jobs well instead of offloading them onto the public? I don’t want to “interact” with the magazine I’m reading. I want accurate information. This is why I PAY FOR the magazine.

  6. MI,

    You are making this situation more complicated than is really necessary.

    What is actually going on is an attempt to stifle dissent by hysterical left-leaners who, having lost their MSM monopoly due to the rise of alternative media (AM radio, then cable, then the internet) *simply will not tolerate* any ideological deviation from “their own” (dying) “instruments” (Newsweek).

    All these charges of “factual error” are bullsh*t – the NF cover piece contained no more error or misrepresention than any randomly selected daily Krugman article.

    But any dissenter to the Left must be “put to silence” (thus the “closed” fact checking process advocated) – open discussion threatens the authoritarian posture of inarguability assumed by the Left.

    MI, you err by assuming that this Krugman et al’s objections are being made in good faith and therefore an entire exegesis on fact checking is called for.

    This isn’t about disinterested truth-seeking – it is about ideological purges and the sanctimonious sh*ts who organize them.

  7. Glenn Fannick

    I have to say that this is one of the strangest arguments I’ve heard on this subject: “Isn’t there a public value to seeing mistakes that are made before the fact-checkers get to them and seeing them corrected”?

    I would say clearly: No. There is value in discussion about the opinions, but not the facts.

    Why should the burden be on the reader to check facts? Not to mention many people well never see the followup and only the original.

  8. There is also an assumption here: that everyone who has access to the print edition of Newsweek also has access to the Internet to find out that there is disagreement about the validity of the article. People who read the magazine at the library do not necessarily then sign in to a public computer to re-read the article they just read and find out if there were any errors in it. While universal access to online resources is non-existent, we depend on editors, fact-checkers, and professional journalists to take their responsibilities seriously and write as objectively and accurately as possible.

  9. Well, since a significant number of people will read the print article and not necessarily read any followup on it, I would say unquestionably, no, it’s not better to print deliberately skewed statistics as facts and then let the chips fall where they may. Newsweek looks like total crap at this point. Any magazine with “News” in their name that is trying to stay alive in this day of free content needs to be more careful than that. Why should people pay for it if it’s not real news?

  10. The liberal thought police are really out in force on this case.

    I’ve read Ferguson’s article. All, or nearly all, of his factual arguments stand up pretty well, IMO. Moreover, lynch mob leader Paul Krugman is the last person in the world entitled to attack others for drawing conclusions unjustified by the evidence cited.

    What the liberal mob really objects to is the magazine Newsweek, which they thought they dominated, publishing a cover article supporting Romney over Obama. They should be attacking Tina Brown, not Ferguson. She hired him to write the article.

    As for Prof. Brad DeLong and others who’ve called for Harvard to fire Ferguson — when in the old days, universities did this to left-wingers, it was called McCarthyism.

  11. kenrecorr

    There’s a difference between news and opinion. The story in question isn’t news, it’s an opinion piece. Factually accurate or not, it should be categorized properly. That would save a lot of argument.

    • Except that I would argue that when “opinion” pieces rely on facts, those must be factual. Interpretation is different from using the wrong numbers. And letting the readers sort it out, as Mr. Ingram is suggesting, is a poor solution in search of a news utopia that doesn’t and won’t exist. It should be part of the fiduciary duty of publishers to vet any content for factual content. Otherwise their brand is worthless.

  12. Frank Reed

    OK, so who is checking those who are poking holes in Ferguson’s arguments? Do you really think he is going to just go out and intentionally lie about things that can be ‘checked’. All we are seeing here is the classic liberal v. conservative back and forth that has made political ‘debate’ in this country untenable. Facts and statistics can be ‘checked’ with a bias. Numbers can be twisted and turned to look anyway at any time for any reason. The only people who are arguing this piece are those who are diametrically opposed to Ferguson politically and their ‘job’ is to tear him doen even if what he was saying was a veritable fortress of truth. You can fact check all you want but when it comes to the US and the deeply polarized political environment we live in, there is no way anyone will write anything that will not be attacked as factually incorrect.

  13. Richard Montgomery

    The problem with publishing today, in my opinion, is that many writers, whether accidentally or on purpose, slant the truth. This dumbing down of journalism is contributing to the concept of “irrelevance” which all publishers and writers should avoid. Just the facts, please.

  14. Er…isn’t what distinguishes professional journalism from the rest of us spouting our opinions on the web is that journalists get all their facts straight? Isn’t that why we trust what’s published more than what’s in the comments or on some random forum?

  15. Nashib Qadri

    I feel the same way as Jim that from a publication of this stature, I expect fact checking to be done *before* it goes out to the broad community. And what is to stop other disreputable ‘journalists’ from rebroadcasting the same garbage and attributing it to Newsweek and claiming it as factual. There is empirical evidence to suggest that once the message is out, even retractions can’t undo the damage as it takes on a life of its own (Sorry, I don’t have the evidence handy).

    The editors and publishers should issue a mea culpa in this matter if they are to attempt to keep their reputations intact.

  16. One reason not to just publish and let the Internet sort it out is that there are decades of research showing that “debunkings” of myths and factual corrections only serve to CEMENT the original misunderstanding in people’s minds. So it becomes “Obamacare increases the deficit by $10 billion? Oh yeah, I heard something about that….”

    Most of the general public doesn’t follow news closely and doesn’t track the evolution of any given story. The fact that a small, vocal contingent of political and news junkies exists has no effect on this larger reality.

    It doesn’t matter if the news junkies pounce on every misstep, because the larger public will rarely absorb the nuance. As a result, publishing a sloppy or outright irresponsible article is virtually guaranteeing that a large chunk of the public will walk away with the wrong impression.

    If you think the purpose of news is to keep news companies in business (i.e., eyeballs) then this is not a problem. If you think the purpose of news is to help the populace become better-informed, then this is a very, very big problem.

  17. Stormkite

    I guess I’m too old fashioned for the modern world. I don’t mind readers discussing and commenting on my work, but I will purely be damned if I’m going to leave it up to them to do my job FOR me. When I put words out with my name on them, I will do anything and everything I know, can learn about, or can imagine to make those words correct. “We don’t know but a guy we met who said he knew someone whose cousin went to school with a girl whose brother in law” — no, sorry. There is still value in the three-source rule.

  18. Garbage and BS are meant to be used for fertilizer, not worthy of reading or getting gullible folks to cite the flawed article to support their arguments in support of the lawed veiwpoint to begin with.

  19. > Isn’t it better to have those criticisms and counter-arguments out where readers can see them and inform themselves if they wish?

    No. Maybe it’s good, but it’s hardly better. Is it better to buy a car that’s been mangled by the assembly plant when a team of friends is available to try to fix it up for you? It’s good to have such friends. But I’d rather have the manufacturer build it right in the first place.

  20. Does not look like that the writer of this article really understand the meaning of the sentence ‘Do your best”… just pouring out garbage to let the readers figure out if it is true or not is not journalism, its vulgerism.

  21. Here is a prime example of why we need editors or better self editing, from the feed at the side of this article:

    The billion-dollar question: What is journalism for?
    As newspapers try and re-engineer their businesses to adapt to the disruption caused by the web and…

    It should be “As newspapers try to re-engineer…”

  22. You ask why we need editors. I have seen more misspellings, grammatical errors and punctuation errors in the last 15+ years since the advent of the public internet than I believe I have ever seen in my previous 28 years before that. While spellchecking has come a long way, it still is unable to reliably distinguish context and correct word usage.

    In addition, it puts egg on the face of revered publications (i.e., The New York Times, Time, etc.) to have to print retraction after retraction due to faulty fact gathering.

    Journalism used to be a business where integrity was hardly ever questioned. Since the 90’s it has turned into a circus that rewards those who publish a story first and the facts be damned.

  23. Jim Sullivan

    While I haven’t read the original article (my copy of Newsweek, delivered the old fashion way, is in my backpack), I have read much of the criticism of the article that you’ve cited. And I’m not sure I completely agree with your argument.

    When I read an article (online or in print) from a respected publisher, I have a higher expectation with respect to the quality of the writing and research. I don’t expect a significant article (whether opinion, analysis or news) from Newsweek, Time, NYT, WSJ, Seattle Times, etc to not be based fact. I expect their arguments to be soundly grounded in reality. Yes, mistakes will be made, but not to the level that it appears that this article has achieved. From what I’ve read, Niall Ferguson’s article sounds more like a blog post or worst, an extended comment in some online forum. When I invest in a serious publication, I expect them to treat my investment with care and not squander my trust in their journalism.

    I do think that in today’s online world, serious journalism is constantly vetted and fact-checked, all recorded for history in the comments section. But the true goal of these sites is to foster a healthy debate, raising the level of the conversation (maybe I should change that ‘is’ to ‘should be’ :-). But including your sources, where possible, with 8×10 colour glossy photographs with pictures and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one, should be part of all online publishing. And I think we’re seeing more and more of that, as articles include the hyperlinks that we all can follow, if we want to follow.

    So yes, more social fact-checking (assuming that we can agree on some trusted sources). But if you’re going to want me to continue my investment in you, you have to make sure that what you publish stands up to the scrutiny.

    Civics is Civil

    Jim Sullivan

  24. Roger L

    I think your suggestion that opinion essays such as Ferguson’s based on questionable or subjective interpretations or actual misstatements of facts can be compared with journalism which has usually been intended as objective reporting of facts is deeply flawed. What value does unedited, unchecked, unmediated “reportage” have to readers? Shouldn’t journalists and editors remain the “smart” filters that professionally present information and context?

    • Thanks for the comment, Roger — I’m not saying we should give up on editing of all kinds, just that there is value to seeing what reporters and writers of all kinds produce without all the filters we have put in place.

      • There is plenty of unfiltered unchecked news available. As a Newsweek subscriber, I would prefer and expect that there is at least some objectivity and accuracy in the articles that pretend to be factual. What Mr. Ferguson wrote was more of a political add that even an opinion piece.

  25. Mahesh Paolini-Subramanya

    I’m baffled – why is this expected to be an “either / or” thing? In an ideal world, wouldn’t there be at least *some* basic level of fact-checking done by “reputable” organizations, but then the sources would *also* be made available for everybody else to validate/verify/criticize?

    • Good point, Mahesh — it shouldn’t be an either/or question. Obviously there should be some editing, but I think there is more value in the public fact-checking than lots of journalists want to admit. Thanks for the comment.

      • James B.

        Mr. Ingram,

        Your statement…

        “and in cases like Ferguson’s Newsweek piece, the validity of an argument like the one he is trying to make is also open to interpretation, as Krugman himself admits.”

        is also either intentionally misleading or extremely sloppy when Dr. Krugman is actually saying the opposite. The “open to interpretation” would be his first type of wrong or “legitimate” difference in opinion. Your statement gives the impression that Dr. Krugman conceded his original key point and therefore gives a bit of “legitimacy” to Ferguson argument. Here is the relevant full paragraph that shows that he does not and that you mislead or were sloppy with.

        “Matters are quite different when it comes to the third kind of wrongness: making or insinuating false claims about readily checkable facts. The case in point, of course, is Ferguson’s attempt to mislead readers into believing that the CBO had concluded that Obamacare increases the deficit. This was unethical on his part – but Newsweek is also at fault, because this is the sort of thing it could and should have refused to publish.”

        If I understand Dr. Krugman’s point is that it would be much better for all of us if basic fact checking were done for “readily checkable facts”. As your post is just an blog post and not an article, I did have less expectations for accuracy. But, none the less, Krugman’s argument would have saved me from (and probably hundreds of others) either getting the wrong understanding or having to chase down all of your claims.

        I say this because before commenting, I looked to see if anyone else noticed the error, intentional or not, on your part. The answer was no… hence, +1 for basic fact checking (ie. an extra look from one additional impartial viewpoint for the benefit of all of us).

        James B.