Late last month, I had an experience unlike any other in my professional life. For two days, I was surrounded by people who work in, or have a specific interest in, fact checking. Yes, someone decided to take the seemingly unprecedented step and create an entire conference about fact checking.
The conference was co-sponsored by Netzwerk Recherche and Der Spiegel, the venerable German weekly magazine. It was held in Hamburg the last weekend of March, and I was invited to give a workshop about preventing factual errors and deliver a keynote address about the rise of external fact checking, a topic I touched upon in a previous column and in my book.
Even though the vast majority of the other presentations at the conference were in a language I couldn’t understand, it was clear that one notable story was that of Der Spiegel itself. It turns out the publication is home to what is most likely the world’s largest fact checking operation. This came as something of a surprise not only to me, but also to the two editors from The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker that joined me as speakers at the conference. (You can read more about the English presenters in this post on my Web site.)
The New Yorker currently has sixteen fact checkers including Peter Canby, the head of the department, whom I met for the first time in person in Germany. The New York Times Magazine, which was represented by managing editor Sarah Smith, has fewer checkers on staff than The New Yorker, though it also works with freelancers. (Smith wrote the excellent book, The Fact Checker’s Bible.) And so there we sat, in the outrageously decorated meeting area at Der Spiegel, staring at German PowerPoint slides revealing that we were in fact inside the walls that house a rather large and amazing fact checking department.
Roughly eighty full-time people work in fact checking and the research/library at Der Spiegel. It calls this its “Dokumentation” department. Another thirty or so part-timers also do duty at the magazine. That’s an astounding, unprecedented number. Dr. Hauke Janssen, the head of “dokumentation,” delivered the opening presentation of the conference. Though the words were unintelligible (my fault, not his) it soon became clear that he was detailing an old and very detailed process. The next day, I sat down with Maximilian Schaefer, a fact checker at the magazine who specializes in science and technology articles, and Axel Pult, a former checker who is now the deputy head of the department, to discuss fact checking at Der Spiegel. Below is an edited transcript of our discussion.
Craig Silverman: When did fact checking first start at Der Spiegel? I got the impression from yesterday’s presentation that it’s been there for a while.
Axel Pult: Spiegel started in 1947 or 48, and according to the presentation of Hauke Janssen last morning, fact checking kind of developed during the first years, but was really established in the ’50s. It was established by the publisher himself and the leading figures in the company. They came to the conclusion that it’s important to avoid mistakes, and it’s important to make it possible to publish things that are checked twice—and not only [checked] by the author.
CS: How many people are in the department?
AP: There are seventy people checking the facts, but also some people are working on handling the database and doing indexing, and stuff like that. It’s almost 100 people, although … some of the people only work part-time. It’s not 100 people working full-time. You can say about eighty full-time jobs.
CS: Why don’t you explain the archives and library you have?
AP: We have a database which mainly contains press articles from the published press, but which also contains documents we call “grey literature.” It means something [that is] informal or not frequently published, something like a leaflet from somebody.
CS: Would a one-time government report fall into that category as well?
AP: Yes. We are also starting to archive things like videos or MP3 files, but this is still in the beginning [phase]. It is mainly text. The photo archive is a different thing.
Maximilian Schaefer: One difference I noticed yesterday, if I understand Sarah Smith correctly, is that [The New York Times Magazine] are using one person to check the text and the photographs. Here it’s different: we have one person to check the facts, and another to check the photographs.
CS: What about illustrations?
MS: The illustrations are checked by the text fact checker. The reason is [illustrations often] contain factual information.