Fact-Checking Really Irritates Some People

By Beth Barhydt

Beth Barhydt

Have you ever gotten into an argument with an eleven year old who is just figuring out how intelligent he is? I do… all the time, and he simply must be right. What really irritates him, frustrates him beyond all reason, are facts that do not support his argument. He is not the only one irritated by pesky facts. At the Sentinel, we get some strong responses when we question details, statements, and claims.

I can hear Mark Twain now, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” I’m all in on ignoring them if the facts are ruining a Marvel movie, but that’s about it.

Fact checking took a long time to emerge as normal. It did not exist in publishing in any professional way until the turn of the 20th century, when yellow journalism and muckraking forced the American media to focus more on accuracy.

Creating a more professional industry demanded both codifying ethics and creating standards, including ideals of accuracy and impartiality.

Publications in the first two decades of the 1900s created full scale operations such as the Bureau of Accuracy and Fair Play; created in 1913 by Ralph Pulitzer, son of Joseph Pulitzer, and Isaac White at the New York World. The bureau’s mission, “to correct carelessness and to stamp out fakes and fakers,” kept track of repeat offenders.

At the time, the idea was new and focused on reprimands rather than prevention.

The New Yorker reportedly began fact checking in 1927 in response to “an egregiously inaccurate profile” of Edna St. Vincent Millay; Newsweek began fact checking six years later, in 1933.

Perhaps the earliest published use of the phrase “fact-checker” is in a 1938 ad lauding the expansion of Time magazine’s “researchers and fact-checkers from ten to twenty-two.”

Time took fact-checking seriously. In the 1940s the head of the research department made an important leap forward from checking just names, dates, and other specifics to a more subtle and important idea.  She wanted to get the facts right and she wanted more: to know that what the facts said in aggregate, how they were used, was also accurate. This need for accuracy was a leap forward of epic proportions. Suddenly claims had to be supported by something real.

Responsibility for accuracy now rested on the fact-checkers. It was not easy work. When Germany invaded Poland on Friday, Sept. 1, 1939, nearly two dozen pages of text for Time had to be correct and ready for publication on Monday, Sept. 3.

Pouring through libraries and printed publications, often into the early morning hours, women (fact-checkers were almost exclusively women) became the anonymous guardians of truth.

In the decades that followed, we experienced a golden age of media where giants like Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow and David Brinkley loomed large. We believed, we trusted, we depended on them because they earned our trust. Walter Cronkite was often cited as “the most trusted man in America” and he was in the media – can you imagine?

Changes in the economics of publishing, which occurred with the advent of internet technology, have all but eliminated the dedicated profession of fact-checking.

There is a reason for the term “fake news” and, while it has a great deal to do with the ignoble intentions and bias of news programs, publications, and click-baiters, it also has to do with the necessity for speed and simple laziness.

Regardless of the reason for the barrage of inaccuracies showing up in all forms of media, it has spawned an entirely new sort of fact-checking.  Entire websites and blogs and even segments on their own shows are devoted to analyzing the factual accuracy of political statements.  Is this helpful? I suppose it depends on what the definition of “is” is.

Facts, as it turns out, are staggeringly complicated.

In 1948, the editors of Time magazine wrote:

All the facts relevant to more complex events, such as the devaluation of the franc, are infinite; they can’t be assembled and could not be understood if they were.

Stories, they said are, made by human beings who bring to the job their own personal experience and education, their own values. They make statements about facts. Those statements, invariably involve ideas.

Of course this is true. We each bring our perspective to a written piece and all editors, journalists, letter writers, opinion piece writers, and columnists write about ideas and the facts they select that explain them. Their job is to distill the facts using their knowledge and experience in order to explain them to the reader. They should, however, not be written with an intention to deceive – being manipulative and intentionally deceitful is similarly akin to fake facts.

Once an inaccuracy has been published, it is too late to re-inform a population that still, as a whole, trusts what they see and read from news sources.

Over the past few weeks the Greenwich Sentinel received quite a few letters to the editor and OpEd pieces. Our policy is that submissions should be accurate, and civil.  We ask that writers refrain from insulting language, sarcasm, unsubstantiated claims and idioms. And we note that we do our best to fact check letters and OpEd pieces prior to publication. When we do identify inaccuracies, hyperbole, or other concerns, we prefer when possible to request edits or clarification rather than reject something outright.

Our goal is to publish as many of these pieces as we can, while ensuring facts offered to the public are accurate.

In response to working with writers, we have had some very positive responses.

“Thank you,” said one OpEd writer, “I appreciate the time you took to work with me on my piece and ensure it is accurate. It turned out to be better and I did not expect that.” This reaction is, unfortunately, rare.

More often we have letter and OpEd writers say something like this, “it is ridiculous (or arrogant, or partisan, or rude, or silly, or unacceptable – insert your choice word here) for you to ask for changes or not to publish it.”

This week, we received something new. An OpEd submission and in the email the author said, “I understand that The Sentinel has periodically asked opinion writers to modify the language of their submission.  The attached is written as I intend it and is not to be modified.”

At first I thought, uh oh… perhaps our policy is too strict. Maybe we should run opinion pieces as they come in without checking them. We have, after all, been blasted by friends, supporters, columnists, politicians, local blogs, and other outlets for being too strict.

I posed the question to a friend over coffee. She is not in the industry – is a nursery school teacher – and her response surprised me.

“So…wait,” she said, “they’re not fact checked in the others? People can just say whatever they want and they publish it? I just assumed they all had to be verified or something.”

And there it is.

The Greenwich Sentinel will keep being difficult and irritating writers because our hope is that readers will know that they can trust what we publish. They can also trust that writers will be civil, an added burden we take on willingly.

We will make mistakes, likely a lot of them. I hope you will let us know when that happens.

PUBLISHER’S NOTE: Someone I respect pointed out the fact that we are fortunate as well to have a daily paper in Greenwich, the Greenwich Time, which also cares about and fact checks its pages and we agree. Thank you!

Historical facts for this article are from the Library of Congress and articles from Time magazine on the history of fact-checking.