The Tilburg Checkers (my name, not theirs) are even becoming known outside of Dutch journalism circles. Dersjant is heading to Germany soon to help set up a similar program there, and a Dutch book publisher recently asked the group to check for factual errors in all of the reviews of a particular book.
“We did it a few weeks ago… and of the fifteen longer reviews only three [didn’t have factual errors],” he said. “Four of them had really big problems.”
Dersjant said the group’s findings show that the press’s protestations about valuing accuracy and corrections don’t match their output. He also suggests that creating an internal fact checking system would be much easier than many organizations think.
“Journalists keep saying that they don’t have as much time to work on stories as they used to, which is true,” he said. “But at the same time, within a couple of minutes, you can point out the stories that are probably inaccurate. If we can do it, so too can the journalists. You don’t have to check all of the stories every day—but you have to have a nose to smell what could be inaccurate.”
The students have only three weeks to learn how to check and start identifying which stories seem suspect. Yet Dersjant said they have no problem developing first-rate bullshit detectors.
“Students develop the nose quite quickly, and after two weeks they get bored because it’s so easy [to find inaccurate articles],” Dersjant said. “Now we’re trying to give our students more complicated things to do, like take an issue of a magazine and turn it upside down and see what’s wrong.”
Of course, even fact checkers make mistakes, which brings me back to the pie in the newsroom. Dersjant said one of the most common types of error is a misspelled name. (This is backed up by over seven decades of accuracy research in the U.S.) As a result, they decided that any student who misspelled a proper name in a fact checking report would have to hand-deliver a pie to the offended party. Today’s scheduled delivery is because a student recently misspelled the name of a journalist at de Volkskrant.
“I have a theory: if you told journalists that if they write a name wrong it gives me the right to cut off one of their fingers, then no journalist would make any of these mistakes,” Dersjant said. “But there is no punishment, there’s not enough danger, so we have to create some.”
I think the humble pie is a good start—these students have some pretty valuable fingers.
Correction of the Week
“A reply to a question in Notes & Queries yesterday recommended purchasing lion and tiger urine from Chester Zoo to stop neighbourhood cats from urinating in a vegetable patch (G2, page 17). Chester Zoo would like to forestall requests for its big cats’ urine: it asks us to make clear that it does not in fact sell either tiger or lion urine. Many years ago the zoo sold elephant dung, but it no longer does.” The Guardian