You may not need a fact-checker, but you do need an editor

Once again, journalistic ethics is in the news. This week’s crime is a Newsweek cover story by British historian Niall Ferguson–a 3,300-plus-word screed against President Obama marred by frequent inaccuracies and lapses of logic.

(The most obnoxious example is Ferguson claiming that the Affordable Care Act would increase the federal debt by only citing its estimated effect on one category of expense and ignoring its projected savings elsewhere; a tax accountant with that mindset could land me in jail. For a fuller debunking, see The Atlantic’s Matthew O’Brien, the Daily Beast’s Andrew Sullivan, Slate’s Matthew Yglesias, and Foreign Policy’s Daniel Drezner, among others.)

This discussion has led to a round of reminiscing about the vanishing role of the fact-checker–see, for instance, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Atlantic post. If only Newsweek hadn’t sacked its fact-checkers in 1996, this argument suggests, the magazine would not have shredded its credibility by publishing such an embarrassing article.

I know a little about fact-checking: My first two jobs in journalism were internships that centered around fact-checking lengthy “think pieces” for Foreign Policy magazine (then owned by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, now a Washington Post Co. property). It was tedious work: You’d print out a draft of a story, take out a red pen or pencil (memory fails me there) and underline and sequentially number every objectively verifiable detail. On a separate sheet, you’d cite your source for each item.

(You can see a recreation of this process in the photo above.)

The process generally worked, allowing writers to advance different interpretations of the same verified set of facts. The work also taught me about properly documenting my own research, something I hope is obvious in my compulsive linking–not that it’s stopped me from making the occasional stupid error.

But it shouldn’t take a dedicated fact-checker to keep a laughably off-base piece from getting published. All you need is a decent editor.

Editors should be reasonably well-grounded in the field a reporter covers to tell a writer to find a better source, address an unanswered question or mention a relevant historical factor. But even somebody parachuting onto a desk should still possess a BS detector sufficient to flag when a story’s logic gets nowhere near proving its thesis. If you can’t or won’t apply those entry-level skills–no, having a name-brand contributor or calling the piece “opinion” doesn’t excuse you–then what are you doing in front of the keyboard?

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