Days after Kellyanne Conway uttered the now-infamous phrase “alternative facts” during a TV interview, Mother Jones magazine launched a new product in its online store: a T-shirt bearing that phrase, but with “alternative” boldly struck out in red, celebrating the magazine’s commitment to publishing only real facts.
Most great magazines share that commitment; the medium actually created contemporary fact-checking practices. But there’s a rumbling at the ground zero of journalistic fact-checking: Magazines are struggling to maintain in their online content the rigor historically applied to that practice in print.
It’s easy to understand why. Publications that once had leisurely monthly production schedules are now producing content on multiple platforms at a breaking-news pace. Fact-checking departments charged with laborious re-reporting of print stories have neither the time nor the personnel for giving the same thorough treatment to online content. As a result, one of the fundamental routines of magazine journalism—fastidious fact-checking prior to publication—is changing with the times.
SPEAKING OF FACT-CHECKING: Our favorite recent corrections
Maddie Oatman, story editor for Mother Jones, was the research editor (in charge of fact-checking) for five years. Under her direction, a team of fact-checkers took every story apart and tracked down all the primary sources to verify everything from the smallest details to the largest conclusions based on them. “We’ve long been recognized as one of the premier places for fact-checking, kind of by design and necessity,” Oatman says. “Fact-checking has been an important way for us to feel empowered to write about things that are going to potentially anger certain powerful people.” And, she adds, “it builds trust with readers.”
To accomplish this, Mother Jones trains researchers (who come to the magazine with research or journalism backgrounds) to perform intensive fact-checking. “The fact-checking kind of serves two purposes for us,” she says. “It’s not just to strengthen our investigative reporting, but it’s also to strengthen the education of today’s emerging journalists.” The Nation, too, sees training fact-checkers as an investment in the future of journalism. “It seems incredibly important to me that the people reading your publication have confidence in its accuracy, which is why we’ve put so much time and resources into developing a program that trains future fact-checkers and journalists,” says The Nation’s Deputy Managing Editor, Kate Murphy.
But what happens online, where there’s no time for this process? In our conversations with research editors at more than a dozen award-winning national and regional magazines, we found this same pattern: Print gets the full-on fact-checking process; online content gets at most a spot-check. (Editor’s note: CJR follows a similar model, with extensive fact-checks for print stories and spot checks for digital.)
The media’s in a bit of a crisis, but at the same time it’s hopefully becoming clearer to people what good journalism actually takes and hopefully readers are the ones who reinforce the publications that really have strong fact-checked journalism.”
Magazine editors compare their online fact-checking and corrections processes to the fact-checking performed by newspapers. And rightly so. The New York Times’ public editor, Liz Spayd, might well have been describing magazines online when she wrote: “Newspaper people try to get everything right, but given that they are human beings writing and editing huge amounts of copy on unforgiving deadlines, often they don’t.” A terrific example of this is Slate’s correction page, with its lists of self-described “mistakes” each week.
Magazines, which now publish on a newspaper-like schedule, would like to avoid creating similar rafts of corrections on a daily or weekly basis. “It’s caused us to have to think more on a case-by-case basis about which stories merit our full-on, primary source-based process,” Oatman says. News commentary pieces, for example, get “express fact-checking”—a check of names, numbers, titles and timelines—before they are posted online. Content that is legally sensitive gets a more thorough check. “We have an internal process for making sure to stop those and to slow things down when we need to,” Oatman says.
Wired, another publication with a storied reputation for fastidious fact-checking, has a similar strategy for checking stories in print, says Deputy Managing Editor Joanna Pearlstein. “It’s important to us that we back up every assertion that we make with a source and that we feel good about that source.” The reporters Wired hires as fact-checkers go over each story line by line, underlining and verifying facts with the use of transcripts, recordings, data, and other primary sources, and watching for errors of interpretation and missed lines of inquiry. “It’s definitely a re-reporting process,” she says.
But original content posted online generally isn’t fact-checked. “We don’t have the staff for that, and we operate usually very quickly on the web—you know, stories that are pitched in a meeting this morning will be live by this afternoon or tomorrow morning, which is very different than working on the print magazine,” Pearlstein says. The only exceptions are online stories that might be legally sensitive, which are given “not a fact-check per se, but a review for accuracy.”
Magazines have developed strategies for minimizing the likelihood of errors in online content, such as limiting who can write web stories and vetting more sensitive stories prior to posting them. A standards editor at the online magazine Fusion determines which stories require additional fact-checking. At The Nation, which has practiced meticulous fact-checking in print for more than 30 years, editors give some online stories a quick check. “We’ll tell the writer, which is often an academic or someone who’s sort of an expert in that particular field, ‘OK, as the editor I’m going to spot-check this, but I also want you to go back and spot-check your facts for me,’” says Murphy, adding that investigative or particularly fact-heavy online stories are given a more thorough treatment. At Wired, online stories are mainly written by trained fact-checkers who have “a natural attention to detail,” Pearlstein says.
In other words, triage systems offer some protections from errors on magazines’ websites. Stories that might be legally sensitive are referred to an in-house or on-retainer lawyer, and some magazines limit online content to a pool of trusted writers. But it’s a porous system, and in the end, corrections and updates to online stories function as a sort of post-publication fact-checking process.
Editors generally agree that the best corrections practice is transparency: Correct the mistake, and append a time-stamped explanation. Practices vary, however, by magazine and by magnitude of error. Portland Monthly, which has no formal corrections policy for online stories, simply fixes errors (which are rare) as they occur and doesn’t notify readers, according to Assistant Editor Ramona DeNies, who oversees fact-checking for the city magazine. ESPN indicates “The story has been corrected” at the top of an online story that has been fixed, and explains the change on a designated corrections page. Wired makes the correction and appends the explanation at the bottom of the story.
It seems more important now than ever to have really accurate facts.”
But errors in published stories trouble magazine editors. “A lot of people are struggling with who to trust, what sources to trust. So it seems more important now than ever to have really accurate facts,” says The Nation’s Murphy. “Even if you get something small wrong, it can make the reader think, ‘Oh my gosh, they got the spelling of this name wrong, they must have everything in here wrong.’ Which is why we always tell our interns that small facts that would be embarrassing to get wrong are just as bad as getting something big wrong, because we can just lose the readers’ trust so easily. It’s critically important.”
Corrections, though necessary, don’t solve that problem, and can even cause new problems. “You can always fix an error. You can always add an addendum. You can always change even something that seems to be finished online,” says Martha Bayne, senior editor of the online magazine Belt, who has written and edited for numerous print publications. “It creates this huge amount of uncertainty about where the ‘now’ is.”
This ongoing process means a story is always a work in progress, never really fixed in time. Past versions exist on cached pages and wherever those versions were quoted or cross-posted; future versions may arise at any time. And editors have to continue updating stories published long ago if errors emerge. “From an editorial perspective, it’s a Promethean task because there doesn’t seem to be a finish line for it,” Bayne says.
And meanwhile, editors worry about how online errors and corrections damage their credibility. “Those little corrections at the bottom of the story, or printed in the front of the book, they track you, and they track the publication, and they kind of haunt you throughout your career,” says Matt Pollock, assistant editor at Chicago magazine, who oversees fact-checking of the print magazine. Nona Willis Aronowitz, features editor at the website Fusion, says errors online “just chip away at our credibility in the manner of death by a thousand cuts.”
Still, editors express optimism about magazines’ evolving approach to fact-checking online content. “We are doing probably a little bit more in terms of paying attention to some of the web stuff, because over the years I’ve become more involved in checking web stories for legal risks,” says Wired’s Pearlstein.
“When the Internet first started, and people didn’t take the internet seriously as a place for real news and features, people weren’t fact checking at all,” adds Fusion’s Aronowitz. “Now the lines have blurred a little bit more, and I think people have taken some cues from legacy media. And there are some digital publications that are just as rigorous at fact checking as any magazine out there, and it’s probably because the people running it are print people.”
Which raises the question: What will happen to fact-checking online when the current crop of online editors, who previously practiced rigorous fact-checking at print magazines, are no longer present? Or might our current cultural climate pressure magazines and other publications to ramp up their online fact-checking because their reputations (and ultimately, their survival) are on the line?
“I’m hoping right now, there’s so much attention to fact-checking as a concept, that it actually reinforces the need for it going forward,” says Mother Jones’ Oatman. “I hope that magazines are paying attention to the fear and confusion that readers feel right now and deciding to reinvest in strong fact-checking as a result.” Wired’s Pearlstein agrees: “We’re in a political climate where we have so much more lying than we have in the past. But also, we have, as a society I think, come to embrace the values of fact-checking, and it seems like the public is appreciating it for the many benefits that it can provide.”
But for magazines with smaller budgets and staffs, the sheer volume of online content remains a challenge to that ideal. “The limiting factor there is capacity,” Portland Monthly’s DeNies says. “I think it’s regrettable and I would like to see some beefing up of the system online.”
Ultimately, it comes down to cost, and whether the reading public discerns that fact-checked content from reputable magazines is worth more than the rest of what can be found online as well as in print.
“I hope that readers recognize the amount of resources it takes to do quality investigative journalism that’s fact-checked and that they’ll continue to support the magazines that do that,” says Oatman. “Right now, the media’s in a bit of a crisis, but at the same time it’s hopefully becoming clearer to people what good journalism actually takes and hopefully readers are the ones who reinforce the publications that really have strong fact-checked journalism.”
“I think that for as long as there’s a market for stories that take two months to put together, fact checking rigorously will continue to exist,” adds Pollock. “I think things that are good, and things that are of high quality, take time. They take time, they’re expensive, but that’s also what makes them good.”