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Craig Newmark: Fact-checking should be part of how news organizations earn trust

The Craigslist founder argues that even though fact checking can be time-consuming and expensive, it’s worth the investment.
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Okay, I’m not in the news business, and I’m not going to tell anyone how to do their job. However, it’d be good to have news reporting that I could trust again, and there’s evidence that fact checking is an idea whose time has come.

This results from smart people making smart observations, at two recent conferences about fact checking, one run by Jeff Jarvis at CUNY (with me involved) and a more recent one at the New America Foundation. I’ve surfaced the issue further by carefully circulating a prior version of this paper.

Restoring trust to the new business via fact checking might be an idea whose time has come. It won’t be easy, but we need to try.

Fact checking is difficult, time consuming, and expensive, and it’s difficult to make that work in current newsrooms. There are Wall Street-required profit margins, and the intensity of the 24×7 news cycle. The lack of fact checking becomes obvious even to guys like me who aren’t real smart.

It’s worse when, say, a cable news reporter interviews a public figure, and that figure openly lies, and the reporter is visibly conflicted but can’t challenge the public figure. That’s what Jon Stewart calls the “CNN leaves it there” problem, which may have become the norm. When such interviews are run again and quoted, that reinforces the lie, and that’s real bad for the country.

Turns out that The New York Times just asked “Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?” That’s a much more pointed version of the question I’ve previously posed. The comments are overwhelming, like “isn’t that what journalists do?” and the more succinct “duh.”

For sure, there are news professionals trying to address the problem, like the folks at Politifact and Factcheck.org. We also see great potential at American Public Media’s Public Insight Network; with training in fact checking, their engaged specialist citizens might become a very effective citizen fact-checking network. (This list is far from complete.)

My guess is that we’ll be seeing networks of networks of fact checkers come into being. They’ll provide easily available results using multiple tools like the truth-goggles effort coming from MIT, or maybe simple search tools that can be used in TV interviews in real time.

Seems like a number of people in journalism have similar views. Here’s Craig Silverman from Poynter reporting recent conferences. Silverman and Ethan Zuckerman had a really interesting discussion regarding the consequences of deception:

That brings me to the final interesting discussion point: the idea of consequences. Can fact checking be a deterrent to, or punishment for, lying to the public?

“I’m surprised we’re not talking about how fact checking could reduce misinformation in the long term by creating consequences, creating punishment,” said Harvard’s Ethan Zuckerman at the DC event.

I’m an optimist, and hope that an apparent surge of interest in fact checking is real. Folks, including myself, have been pushing the return of fact checking for some months now, and recently it’s become a more prominent issue in the election.

Again, this is really difficult, but necessary. I feel that the news outlets making a strong effort to fact-check will be acting in good faith and trustworthy, and profitable. However, this seems like a good way to start restoring trust to the news business.

Craig Newmark is the founder of craigslist, the network of classified ad sites, and craigconnects, an organization to connect and protect organizations doing good in the world.

                                   
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  • http://twitter.com/marstall chris marstall

    There’s a distinction here between checking facts that the reporter asserts (not in quotes) and checking facts that someone else asserts (inside quotes). 

    A newspaper is certainly responsible for checking facts that are outside quotes. 

    As far as fact-checking what sources say (beyond getting their words right), it’s a more complicated issue. If the issue being opined on is obscure or technical, and the source is an expert, the reporter is probably not qualified to check the truth of what’s being claimed. In fact, getting a quote from an acknowledged expert is probably the best that can be done. 

    It’s different when a prominent person says something about another prominent person that is at best a matter of opinion and at worst factually incorrect, and more commonly in the grey area in between. One way to handle this is to be “balanced” – that is, get a quote from the other side that provides another perspective. 

    In the case of an obvious howler, it might be the duty of a newspaper to set the record straight – or omit the quote, seeing as it is evidently inaccurate. Short of that, you quickly get into the question of, well, what qualifies this reporter to weigh in? Is s/he an expert? Are we sure s/he doesn’t have his or her own biases and is not picking and choosing? It’s complicated. And in a breaking news story (not an opinion piece) the emphasis is on very quickly letting people know what’s happening, what’s been said, etc.

  • Anonymous

    Regarding live fact-checking – we know it can be done.  Just look at the tools/technology that sportcasters appear to have at their disposal.  Less than ten seconds after a 30-yard run, they are spouting off the last time a runningback ran that far in a home game against team X, which was on Y date when Soandso was coaching offense and Whatshisname was QB.  THAT my friends is a non-trivial fact query with multiple cross references even.  “We have the technology.”

    I can’t imagine that a live newscenter like CNN would not/cannot have the same resources as ESPN…?

    Oh, wait – that’s right, they aren’t funded by the multi-billion-dollar gladiator – er, sports industry…

  • http://cnewmark.com Craig Newmark

    Folks, I’m listening… it’s not easy for me, I’m very serious when I confess my limited knowledge of the news business, and I’ve no intention of telling anyone how to do their job. This is totally serious, since it’s a matter of getting news that regular humans will trust. /Craig

  • Chuck Taylor

    Except on the campaign trail, I’m not sure we journalists even have a fact-checking problem. I mean, it’s a pretty ingrained ethic. One of the nine Principals of Journalism”:
    “3. ITS ESSENCE IS A DISCIPLINE OF VERIFICATION
    Journalists rely on a professional discipline for verifying information. When the concept of objectivity originally evolved, it did not imply that journalists are free of bias. It called, rather, for a consistent method of testing information–a transparent approach to evidence–precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work. The method is objective, not the journalist. Seeking out multiple witnesses, disclosing as much as possible about sources, or asking various sides for comment, all signal such standards. This discipline of verification is what separates journalism from other modes of communication, such as propaganda, fiction or entertainment. But the need for professional method is not always fully recognized or refined. While journalism has developed various techniques for determining facts, for instance, it has done less to develop a system for testing the reliability of journalistic interpretation.”

    (http://www.journalism.org/resources/principles)

  • http://www.ktvz.com Barney Lerten

    Hear hear Chris! One of the biggest woes I see is folks who – and I’m not saying this is Craig’s intent – complaint about ‘lack of fact checking’ ONLY because they feel their side of an issue was slighted – in other words, one-way (not two/all-way) fact-checking. That the story wasn’t spun in THEIR direction brings claims of media bias/laziness. Sad, but it happens in our Blame Society. Our TV station cannot reinvestigate what police find in a story, but it’s our duty to follow up when someone says we weren’t told the whole story. (Of course there’s ALWAYS more to a story…)

  • http://twitter.com/kmhurley kmhurley

    I think readers these days have a news source they trust for different subjects.  I wouldn’t go to the NYT for news about chemicals and environmental impact, I’d go to nature.com or something even more niche, like the Actio Blog.  But for a book review?  Straight to the NYT.  For foreign affairs?  NYT. 

    Point is: readers no longer use one source for all their news.  They take one page from here, an article from there, a blog post from wayy over there.  (Same with TV: we skip around.)  They know who their experts are, and they trust them.

  • http://www.postlinearity.com gregorylent

    fact-checking won’t stop american media from drum-beating for the american government

  • Snoop0x7b

    When a source like Sarah Palin says, “Obama care will bring out death panels.” You don’t need to be an expert to fact check that, all you need is common sense and the ability to read. You read the bill, no death panel. What you write instead is, “Sarah Palin alleges that Obama care will bring about death panels for old people. However, this statement is factually inaccurate.” 

  • Anonymous

    Ah Snoop, you’ve stepped in it!

    If you do read the bill, the health-care legislation DOES contain provisions for “end of life counseling”. And this is in reaction to the fact that 50% of healthcare is spent at the end of life, and often in heroic measures to keep someone alive for just another few weeks, and every politician dealing with health has struggled over this issue.
    So “death panels” do exist in it — i.e., she is not “factually inaccurate”, but her *characterization* of them as evil is wrong.

    But now you’re deep in it, because you have to spend much more time understanding it to explain this in detail… to an audience that doesn’t give a shit because they’ve decided the “truth” based on their partisanism. 

    And portraying end-of-life counseling as “evil” is an “opinion”, not merely a fact to be checked… so really Mr Lerten’s description of the issue not being “spun correctly” is spot-on.

  • Anonymous

    Look man it’s simple:

    People don’t trust the sources that give the truth.

    People trust the sources they agree with.

    And so it is with you. You have pointed to sources that you say people will find untrustworthy in the new news environment, i.e., FNC

    And while it is joyful for us to imagine that our ideological enemies are simply wrong… or even evil… the terrible reality is:

    YOU MUST LISTEN TO ALL SOURCES IF YOU WANT TO TRIANGULATE ON TRUTH.

    The National Enquirer reported THE TRUTH about John Edwards. All other sources had troubling evidence and decided to ignore it.

    Do you TRUST the National Enquirer?  Of course not!!!  But the lesson remains:

    YOU MUST LISTEN TO ALL SOURCES IF YOU WANT TO TRIANGULATE ON TRUTH. 

  • Brian Mcneil

    “Earned trust”?

    Good grief! It’s a mark of self-respect. But, it is a very hard job to do well — as we’ve discovered over on Wikinews.

    arpieb comments that it’d done in sportscasting, but misses the critical point about that — facts and figures on sports are relatively simply tabulated statistics. So, the information can be put in a database and queried quickly and easily.

    Politics, which makes up the lion’s share of news impacting people’s daily lives, is far less easily organised into a database for fact-checking. In any case, a substantial number of people will argue over what is “fact” within the political arena; they may take what Sarah Palin says, what Ronald Reagan wrote, the teachings of Karl Marx — or even the ravings in Mein Kampf, to be “fact”.

    What, from back here in the cheap seats, seems to be the biggest problem with many of the giants in the ‘news industry’ is a lack of “due diligence”. That lack of due diligence runs through many, many organisations. Here in the UK the Leveson Inquiry is digging up all the dirty on phone hacking. Claims of a “lone reporter” are unravelling all over our little outpost of the Murdoch Empire. Responsible editors, from departmental level up to the boardroom, are having to deny any action to fact-check or otherwise perform due diligence. To reassure readers they check their stories before publication, they’d all have to admit to knowledge of obtaining information illegally, and continuing to condone illegal activities.

    Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

    Putting aside one man’s corruption of the media, through having an appendage in every pie imaginable — and the demand for instant gratification by the public, you get a lot less news where it is stripped back to the “fact-checkable”. Not to mention, you’ve got to wait for the fact-checking to be done.

    kmhurley makes the classic mistake — a book review is not news, it is an opinion. You have to keep the distinction between news and editorial content clear, rather than assume what is in a newspaper is “all news”. This is why I say you’d get a lot less news where ‘news’ is what undergoes due diligence, or fact-checking.

    And lastly, facts are not “truth” — which Stephen Colbert perfectly explains with the concept of “Truthiness”. Perhaps the NYT might reexamine their headline alongside that?

  • Ron Shuker

    The difference between a ‘professional’ at journalism and someone who writes about the same topic is the inherent training and skill and sense of responsibility we all endeavour to follow from our journalism schools training and education.

    One organization that has followed this essential principal of fact checking is that old reliable The Readers Digest.  Years ago, our business magazine editors organization in Toronto held a workshop and invited an RD staffer to explain why they checked every fact, every quote and name and dates, etc. before publishing.

    It was an eye-opener and certainly encouraged all of us to do a better job at it.

    It is a basic essential principal of our profession! And our responsibility to be as accurate and honest as we can.  Someone has to or the world gets even more garbage than it normally does.
    @db9e9ca2539d33afc8897b4ba6622909:disqus 
    But, as other comments have shown, it is not easy to do all the time.

    One approach that I tried to do with most of my writings — which horrified many journalists, particularly in the daily newspapers — was to send the article to the sources and ask for their comments and corrections.  I did this for some 40 years — and rarely regretted it, except when the PR people got their pencils on it or an egotistical type decided to re-write mine, not because that person disagreed with what I had written, just the way I had written it. Then I ignored him. Or delayed publishing it until I got it correct.

    In business magazines (often called ‘trade’ publications) we wrote to experts. We had to be correct because I wasn’t an expert on that trade.  While we learned a tremendous amount about the technical side of our industry over our years on that publication, we could never match our readers’ knowledge and experience.

    To me it was better to be correct than ‘independent’ so I sent my article to my sources, often several in one feature, which also helped to balance each other out.   I still had the final say in what that article said.  As I said, I rarely regretted it, because it is not difficult to write something that you think is correct but the source says it is an incorrect interpretation, for example.

    Certainly money and profits can strangle this fact checking attempt, especially as the number of staffers decline to do such work, or the time factor comes into play, but are we professionals at it or not?

  • http://twitter.com/MatthewSchafer Matt Schafer

    This course of action will no doubt ruffle the feathers of those on the wrong side of truth, and, yes, it might also bring charges of bias.  What do newspapers really have to lose though?  Most people already believe that newspapers are biased either to the left or the right (depending on who you ask) anyway.  Moreover, most people already do not trust newspapers.  Additionally, the increasing popularity of fact checkers like FactCheck.org and Politifact shows, if nothing else, that the public wants a clear answer when such an answer exists in the first place.
    If journalists do choose to change their practices and routines, it will have to be a committed change.  They must shed constraints of their traditionally he said/she said approach that live within the walls of academia and newsrooms today, taking on a greater responsibility of actively searching for “the truth.”  At the same time, though, newsrooms must know that their vigilantism must be tempered by an understanding that truth is so very often elusive.
    Read more: http://lippmannwouldroll.com/2012/01/17/political-pinocchios-fact-checking-and-journalist-responsibility/

  • http://twitter.com/MatthewSchafer Matt Schafer

    This course of action will no doubt ruffle the feathers of those on the wrong side of truth, and, yes, it might also bring charges of bias.  What do newspapers really have to lose though?  Most people already believe that newspapers are biased either to the left or the right (depending on who you ask) anyway.  Moreover, most people already do not trust newspapers.  Additionally, the increasing popularity of fact checkers like FactCheck.org and Politifact shows, if nothing else, that the public wants a clear answer when such an answer exists in the first place.
    If journalists do choose to change their practices and routines, it will have to be a committed change.  They must shed constraints of their traditional he said/she said approach that live within the walls of academia and newsrooms today, taking on a greater responsibility of actively searching for “the truth.”  At the same time, though, newsrooms must know that their vigilantism must be tempered by an understanding that truth is so very often elusive.
    Read more: http://lippmannwouldroll.com/2012/01/17/political-pinocchios-fact-checking-and-journalist-responsibility/

  • http://pr.typepad.com johncass

    A colleague of mine is a proponent of blue ocean strategy.
    One aspect of which is that government legislation can have a big impact on
    industries, culture and society.

    I don’t know, but I wondered if the removal of the Fairness
    Doctrine in the 1980s has had an impact on the issue of fact checking? Or
    rather perhaps as this great article and overview from the Museum of Broadcast
    Communications suggests, when you have to consider fairness in every broadcast,
    you give more people the chance to bring their point of view, and hence check
    the facts by default. (http://www.museum.tv/eotvsection.php?entrycode=fairnessdoct)

    However, its 2012, and you of all people, Craig know about
    the speed of the web, and its effect on information and facts. The news cycle
    does change things, online media outlets compete to get the story out, and
    don’t always have time to check the facts. You could even argue that in the fog
    of of the event, that’s quite appropriate for a media outlet to do. The
    expectation being that facts will be checked over as time progresses, and as
    long as the updates are reported, and its stated that we published what we knew
    at the time, that’s a perfectly acceptable way to publish.

    I was struck by an interview by Tom Foremski with Dan Farber
    the editor at CNET where Dan made a couple of points about the reality of
    today’s journalism, I pulled out a few points from Dan’s interview for my own
    post:

    - Publish a story as quickly as possible, edit it later.
    - Stories are updated constantly.

    (http://pr.typepad.com/pr_communications/2008/04/2008-tech-edito.html)

    Essentially, in the rough and tumble of today’s journalism
    Dan states that you have to publish what you know now and come back later to
    reprise what is really accurate. I think the current news environment lends
    itself to publishing with accuracy where possible, but commercial pressures
    mean that sometimes speed cannot stay pressing the publish button to wait for
    fact checking. If you are going to change things you’ll have to change the 24
    hour news cycle, the web and commercial pressures. Unlikely, maybe therefore
    its more about be as careful as you can be when you publish initially, and then
    encouraging the community to call you out if you don’t have the facts. I’d even
    argue, updates to a story even an update that changes the facts is an opportunity
    to engage the reader again, and so for the media company sell more advertising
    or sponsorship.

  • Mack Kelly

    oh my gosh. end of life counseling is not death panels. it’s unfortunate that so many medical and political terms are interpreted so literally “end of life counseling” = “death panels”, rather than the true meaning of end of life counseling and what actually takes place.

  • Mack Kelly

    this is so true. just debated with my dad this weekend, and he only believes what he wants to believe (and I share that trait, but I’m open to fact).

    I think “what” needs to be fact checked is what is being stated as fact. So, it’s not what brian williams or megyn kelly or chris matthews thinks about obamacare. It isn’t how accurate they are in quoting sarah palin on death panels. It’s determining whether end of life care actually means death panels. Journalism used to include investigative reporting. Is it journalism without research and investigation, or is it just an explosion of gossip columns?

  • Mack Kelly

    amen