AP: … There are two main purposes of our database. The first is to do the research in the process of preparing articles. The writers department calls us up or sends us an e-mail or comes by our office, and we develop a plan of what materials are needed to research and write articles. One of the researchers—who are the same people as the fact checkers—works with them. In a way you could say that during a working week, the first three days, from Monday to Wednesday, we are researchers and Thursday and Friday we are fact checkers. It’s oversimplified, but in a way it’s like that.
CS: How do you determine which sources are reliable and which aren’t?
AP: … In the German press, there’s newspapers that are more reliable than others, and of course [this knowledge is part of] the qualifications of good fact checkers—to know the sources in his field and rely on these.
MS: There are also differences between departments. The politics checkers are using more cross-checking with published sources [like newspapers]. For example, has Angela Merkel already said this quote to another newspaper? At the science [checking] department, if we’re reporting about a new scientific fact we don’t only look at what newspapers have written about it—we look at the original papers of the scientists.
CS: Your fact checkers are organized by areas of expertise. What are the specialties that you have for fact checkers?
MS: Politics, science, economics, foreign affairs, culture, and sports, which is small—only one person. German politics is our biggest department … And, for example, our fact checker for the medical stories used to work as a doctor.
CS: So the idea is to match the expertise with the subject because you know the right places to look.
MS: Also, we are kind of in-house experts. So if somebody writes an article and wants to know some physics fact, he calls me and usually I can give it to him out of my own expertise. I usually don’t have to call somebody else. We’re consulted by the authors.
CS: That’s one big difference with the American model, where the checker doesn’t get involved until the piece is finished or close to finished. Whereas you might be consulted even before the writer starts writing …
MS: Yes. The illustration department often has an idea and then calls and asks if it’s possible to do it like this, or to get the data we need to do the illustration. So we are involved also in illustration creation.
AP: Yesterday during the presentation there was a question about whether there is a conflict of interest because of this construction—or, to say in other words, because you check your own research. I don’t think it’s really a problem. It would be a problem if somebody would be the fact checker of his own writing … but assistance during the research process is okay. If I am fact checking an article which I have assisted with research, it doesn’t represent any problem because [the article doesn’t only contain] the research from us. The author has researched a lot of new material … Also, it’s not a problem to know some of the sources beforehand—it’s almost an advantage because you selected them with lots of time to do so, and because you rely on them. If the article refers to them, it’s okay—it’s not a disadvantage, it’s an advantage.
CS: Is there a different mentality for when you are acting as a researcher compared to when you become a fact checker?
MS: Not really. In both cases you have to find reliable information…
AP: There is one difference, according to my experience … in the process of research you are on a team with the author. In process of fact checking, it’s more of an adversarial relationship.
MS: The relationship is different, true. But the way of working isn’t. In both cases, I try to find accurate information. In the research phase, I try to find a broader amount of information. And the fact checking is guided by the facts provided in the article.
CS: Do you think your readers know about this very involved fact checking process?
AP: I think so, yeah. One of the reasons to have such a big and of course financially significant fact checking and research department is to build up a special relationship between reader and magazine. In German there is a term [that means] “reader-magazine connection.” And it has something to do with the special image of Der Spiegel in Germany.
CS: Why do you think you’re the only ones who do this in Germany?
AP: We’re not the only one. We’re the one who does it in the most sophisticated way.