Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Why all the news isn't fit to print

I started my career in magazine publishing, as a researcher/fact checker for a glossy Manhattan-based magazine. Like the narrator in Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City, without all the cocaine or partying.

Back then, in the 1980s, every magazine and newspaper had a fact checker/researcher on staff, often a whole team of them, to ensure that they got stories right.

It was not a glamorous or an easy job. Often you would butt heads with writers (many of whom couldn't actually write), who would play fast and loose with the facts. (One such writer, whom I worked and butted heads with constantly, eventually took his column to The New York Times, where I doubt it's ever been fact checked.)

But fact checking was considered an essential job -- and if you did it well, not only did you feel the pride of saving the publication from a potentially messy, litigious situation, but you would eventually get promoted.

Today you would be hard pressed to find a fact checker at any publication.

Instead, for actually many years now, magazines and newspapers, especially the digital ones, have come to rely on writers, many (most?) of whom are too busy or lazy to fact check (and have never taken a journalism course or been properly trained) to check their own facts. A very scary proposition -- and why we continue to see stories blow up upon closer inspection.

But what about editors, or producers? Shouldn't they be verifying stories before they are published or aired?

Yes, yes, they should. And some do. (Albeit mostly nightly TV news producers, who know their asses will be toast if they screw up a story, especially one having to do with politicians or the government.)

But thanks to budget cuts, a 24x7 news cycle, and the constant need for more page views or higher TV ratings, there is so much pressure on news organizations to spit out the news quickly, especially sensational or breaking news, that fact checking, or in-depth research, goes out the window and door -- or is only done at a most basic level.

The sad thing is, in many (most?) cases, checking the facts doesn't require much, just asking a few questions (albeit the right ones) and requiring proof that something is, in fact, true.

But apparently that is too much work for some publications, even prominent ones, such as New York Magazine, whose story about a Bronx high school student making $72 million trading stocks during his lunch hour was quickly proven to be false (i.e., untrue), after editors and producers at other news organizations asked the teen some simple, basic financial questions, which he couldn't answer, as well as for proof, which he couldn't produce. 

However, lest you think that New York Magazine is the exception, it isn't. Just look at Rolling Stone or The New York Times, both of which have been shown to be negligent in regard to fact checking recently. (Though in the latter's case, it's been going on for some time now. Which may be why you no longer see "All the news that's fit to print" on the Times's masthead, or at least on the digital version.)

And that is why, boys and girls, you shouldn't believe everything -- or even half of what -- you read, especially online, or take it with a grain of truth.

1 comment:

Anna said...

Amen to that, sistah! Perhaps a few expensive lawsuits that would cost the publications more than the measly salary of a fact-checker would change things? But no, they think it's more important to be FIRST with a story, rather than bother with any in-depth analysis. My question is, what does a publication get for being first? Does it get them any financial gain? I'm not clear why this race to be first started in the first place, ha ha.