Journalists, scientists, historians, and judges all share one key attribute: the need to work with information and evidence to find and test facts. Talking to all of the above about their process is the premise of a new podcast, Methods, from science journalist Brooke Borel. Borel has worked as a fact-checker, research editor, science reporter, and is author of The Chicago Guide to Fact-Checking.
In its three-episode pilot season in early August, Borel talks to a marine biologist who “talks” to dolphins, a journalist covering an international climate-change lawsuit, and an author about how journalists should cover conspiracy theorists.
In an interview with CJR, Borel reveals the inspiration for Methods and the importance of putting a spotlight on the behind-the-scenes processes of those who work with facts. In an era of “fake news,” she hopes fact-checking will become as an integral part of all forms of journalism.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You studied engineering as an undergrad at Boston University. So what eventually led you to journalism?
I ended up in a grad program at NYU. It wasn’t a journalism program, more of a “build your own curriculum” thing. I was mainly focused on the history of science and science studies, which looks at science from a cultural and social perspective. I really enjoyed writing about science, so I fell into journalism, specifically science journalism. One of my first jobs was as a fact-checker. I worked as a fact-checker for this magazine called Science Illustrated (which doesn’t exist anymore in English, as far as I know) and ultimately got promoted as research editor there. I’ve been a journalist for about nine and a half years now.
You a wrote book about fact-checking. How did that come about?
In addition to reporting on science early in my career, I wrote this book on bedbugs called Infested. As I was working on the book, through a chance conversation with my editor, I learned that they were seeking someone to write a fact-checking guide for their writing guide series. We got into this big conversation about fact-checking because I was talking about fact-checking Infested. I ended up submitting a book proposal and writing the guide.
The way I approached that book was I was pulling from my own work as a fact-checker and a researcher, but I also interviewed I think 90 people from different publications—The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, GQ, people who fact-check books for a living, reporters, etc. So I pulled all that information together. It’s intended really for anyone doing non-fiction writing, and for early career journalists who are dealing with facts, but maybe don’t have a certain expertise in the beat they are covering, or don’t have fact-checkers readily available. The guide helps them be able to do these things themselves.
How did the Methods podcast come about?
The guide got published a month before the 2016 election, in this really interesting swirl of fake news and alternative facts and all the things we’ve been talking about since. Because of that, I’ve been writing about these things much more than I expected to. I wrote an essay for FiveThirtyEight about how fact-checking is not going to save us from fake news. And as I was doing all of this stuff, a friend of mine, Ben Lillie, was launching an event space and publishing company called Caveat [that] would be producing live shows and podcasts.
He and I had been friends for a long time, and we talked in the past about wanting to do a podcast together, and Methods sort of came from those conversations. The goal is to have each episode where we are talking to people who are professional fact-finders—whether that’s a scientist, journalist, historian, and maybe as we go further into the show, I’d like to talk to, for example, a jury foreman or a psychologist helping patients understand themselves, or any person who is using some form or reasoning and fact-checking to understand the world around them. I want to really get into their process and see how they do what they do.
The 2016 election really exposed a counter-intuitive problem in journalism—the conflict between truth and balance. On one hand, if journalists “tell the truth,” or at least the best version of the available facts in context, they still are accused of bias (not showing “opposing views” or “both sides”). But on the other hand, if we show too “much balance,” we run the risk of giving inaccurate or misleading information the same platform as “facts.” Where do you see the podcast being able to help address this conflict?
Look, I’m very excited about this podcast, but I don’t think one podcast or piece of writing will solve everything. Just because a person is an “expert” or a journalist doesn’t mean we get everything right. Scientists and journalists see themselves as these very objective people, but as human beings, we have biases and there’s no way around that. I think that bias is something journalists need to be aware of, acknowledge, and [work] to curb.
But I’m hoping that the podcast will do a few things. I hope it shows the behind-the-scenes processes of an article or a scientific study. That stuff doesn’t always end up in the final piece, and as we have many people in the public questioning the media, questioning science, questioning expertise, I think talking about the process is important. It’s not like a scientist just sits there and says, “Hey, climate change is a thing.” It’s based on a rigorous scientific process that led them to that conclusion. Same thing as a journalist: There’s a rigorous process that we go through to put an article out, but we don’t talk about the methodology that goes into it. I think talking to people about these processes will show others how to apply these steps, too.
There’s a rigorous process that we go through to put an article out, but we don’t talk about the methodology that goes into it.
In Episode 1, you interviewed author and filmmaker Jon Ronson, a screenwriter on the critically acclaimed film Okja, about how journalists should cover conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones. Ronson’s stories were captivating, but I also felt conflicted about some of his points, for example, where he addressed mainstream media’s “failure” to understand its own biases. As journalists, how do you think we should have this discourse when our viewpoints on news media come into conflict?
I hear what you’re saying. There were some things that Jon said during our interview that also made me uncomfortable. But this is going to come up. Truth and facts are different things, right? You can have different reporters [with] the same facts, but the things they write in the story [can] be totally different. There is no totally objective human being who is going to have the perfect answer to everything. And there’s always some other bit of information we need for more context, and it’s impossible to build out that context at every single moment. Figuring out the type of people and perspectives we bring to the show is an ongoing process. And there will be many times when we have guests where some people will be like, “that guest was great,” and others will be like, “well, actually…”
But that’s kind of the nature of getting these different perspectives. It’s so much more complicated than “this is right” and “this is wrong.” So that is going to be one of my biggest challenges on the show, trying to navigate that, to show these nuances in creative ways and ask the right questions to lay all that out for the audience in an honest way.
Do you think news organizations need to invest more in fact-checking?
As far as fact-checking goes, there has been research on how when publications issue corrections, there’s only a tiny number of readers who read the original article who actually read the correction. So does it reach the people it’s suppose to reach? Nightly news shows don’t always have the luxury of live fact-checking, since they operate at a much faster pace. But also, since they operate at such a fast pace, hypothetically, they can correct themselves more quickly than a print magazine. But I would love to see at these outlets, someone who’s almost like an ombudsman—someone to do quality control, run corrections, and provide more context.
Journalists are seen as “jacks of all trades”—people with working knowledge about many things. As someone who has a specific expertise in science, do you think there needs to be more journalists who have worked or studied in the field they cover?
I can speak mostly about that in the context of science journalism. Long before I got here, there’s been this conversation about whether people should have a science background when they are writing on science. I do think there should be people with that level of scientific knowledge and formal training; they have deep understanding of a scientific field they have a PhD in. They can pick out someone’s bullshit, right?
On the other hand, there are many science journalists who don’t have a science background and are at the top of their field. I think that any journalist who is a good journalist is going to have that ability to ask questions and get to the bottom of something. In fact, not having that in-depth knowledge can also be helpful, because if you have it, you may not think of the questions that actually the audience may be interested in understanding, because they seem “too obvious” to you.
That said, I do think journalists don’t interview historians enough. You don’t need to have a degree in history to know that history is important, and to seek out historians for historical context in your pieces. It’s just a matter of training journalists how to identify and reach out to the right experts.
Journalists don’t interview historians enough.
One of the questions you ask at the end of each episode is, “If you could tell your listeners one fact that you want everyone to know, what would it be?” How would you answer that question?
The fact that I would want everyone to know is, whatever news you’re consuming, know that each piece of information does not exist in a vacuum. Just reading something and saying, “Okay, now I know that,” and moving on, is not the way it works. Every little bit of information in every article you read, every documentary you see, anything you consume when it comes to media, is part of a much larger context. No single form of media provides the definitive answer on anything. Continuing to be open minded and curious is important. I would tell them to always ask questions.