Polygraphs and Private Eyes

Inside the National Enquirer’s elaborate fact-checking process

Prior to returning my call, Barry Levine was on the phone with one of his reporters, discussing a source they hoped to use for a story.

For Levine, the executive editor/director of news at the National Enquirer, that entailed discussing the strategy and questions that would be used during an upcoming polygraph examination of the source. Yes, things work a bit differently at the Enquirer.

As most people in journalism know, this is a good time in the history of the Enquirer. It broke the John Edwards infidelity story, made major revelations in the Tiger Woods infidelity story, and was subsequently the talk of this year’s Pulitzer Prizes, even though the paper left empty handed. Levine says it’s been a good year in terms of helping people understand exactly what the Enquirer is and isn’t.

“It’s been important about breaking down the myths that we publish stories about three-headed aliens and that type of thing, which is absolutely not true,” he says. “This myth is people confusing the National Enquirer with the Weekly World News, which was a fun, college-audience-oriented type of tabloid that the company published some years back.”

I had requested an interview with Levine in order to talk about the Enquirer’s vetting and verification process. Once on the phone, Levine says we have a lot talk about.

“Obviously we want the public to believe the stories we’re writing,” he says. But things are different for them because “we’re in the business of revealing secrets … there’s obviously a lot at stake, so the vetting process as it relates to sources really is the most important part of the process.”

While the fact-checking process at larger magazines is reasonably similar from one story to the next, Levine says that no two Enquirer stories are the same in terms of their verification requirements.

“We have a very particular system that is probably more elaborate than any other newspaper or magazine in America,” he says. “We have a battery of devices available to us, and I’ll use as many or all that I feel necessary to bring in a story.”

Here, as best as I can outline it, is the range of fact-checking and verification devices used by the National Enquirer.

Independent Corroboration: Levine regularly has multiple reporters hit the pavement to see if they come back with information that corroborates what the paper has already received from a specific source. Usually, the reporters have no idea what their colleagues are up to. “We independently corroborate their information with other sources,” he says. “Often times a reporter will focus on an individual source and will file copy based on what that source says. Then I have other reporters speak to other sources and file copy—and one reporter will not know what was filed by the other reporter. It’s a way to see if the same story is stood up by multiple sources.”

Polygraphs: The weekly has existing relationships with several polygraphs experts, and it keeps them busy. “If we have very revealing information about a celebrity or newsmaker, we will have the source sit down and be administered a polygraph test based on specific questions about what they told us,” Levine says.

Affidavits and Recordings: The Enquirer will often have off-the-record sources sign a legal affidavit that attests to the accuracy of their information, and also ensures they will appear in court to testify to their information. This helps the weekly satisfy its legal team, though Levine notes that in a decade with the publication he’s never found himself in a courtroom. So perhaps asking for an affidavit is also just a good way to test an off the record source. Aside from the affidavit, “another step is audio taping and video taping the source to provide a clear testimony of what they’ve told us.” This is to ensure that “a few months down the road they won’t change their story.”

Legal Vetting: The Enquirer’s legal team is very much a part of the vetting and verification process. (The only other publication I know of that requires as much legal review of copy is Playboy.) Levine says anything in a story that is new information specific to the Enquirer’s reporting must be sourced and provided to the company’s lawyers. “We pull all of this information together to allow our attorneys to make a decision whether or not we should proceed,” Levine says. As an example, the Enquirer lawyers required editors and reporters to go back and get additional corroboration before giving the green light to publish about Tiger Woods’s infidelity. “We spent additional time, made a source go on the record, did polygraph tests, and got additional documents that nailed the story,” Levine says.

Investigations of Sources: “We’ll investigate sources if necessary,” Levine says. I ask if that means he will hire a private investigator to look into a source’s background and life. “If I feel it’s necessary,” he says. “Obviously, on many stories we’ve tied our credibility to that source’s credibility. If I’m concerned about a story or a source I’ll check them out just like I will check out a celebrity or newsmaker.” That includes checking the source’s statements about themselves against what the investigator finds, and “seeing if they are who they say they are.”

Traditional Fact-Checking: Yes, they do this boring old kind of verification as well. Levine says there are roughly six people in the magazine’s Florida-based research/fact-checking department. They check quotes with people who have gone on the record and verify information such as the spelling of names, addresses etc. (The department was created after Carol Burnett won a judgment against the Enquirer in 1981). “The fact-checking department are not necessarily involved in vetting sources but they are involved with the editorial and legal process,” he says.

Say what you want about their brand of journalism, but you can’t say that Enquirer doesn’t care about vetting and verification. And, yes, I’d be willing to submit myself to Levine’s battery of tests to back that up.

Correction of the Week

“IN yesterday’s edition of the Irish Sun, we published a story about an arrest made by gardai in the investigation into the murder of innocent Noel Crawford.

“The photograph accompanying the story was stated to be a picture of the late Mr Crawford but it was in fact an image of the late Limerick criminal Noel Campion.

“We apologise unreservedly to the Crawford family for any distress caused by the error.

“We would once more like to point out that Mr Crawford had no criminal record.” – The Sun (U.K.)

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Craig Silverman is the editor of RegretTheError.com and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of OpenFile.ca and a columnist for the Toronto Star.