This is a guest post by Jeff Edelstein, columnist at the Trentonian (who’s appeared in this blog before), prompted by these tweets and an email exchange following my blog post about linking and the Manti Te-0 story:
As a former fact checker at a magazine, I do wonder … does no mag that wrote about Te’o employ fact checkers?
— Jeff Edelstein (@jeffedelstein) January 16, 2013
Newspapers generally don’t employ fact checkers. Mags usually do. How did SI not flush this out? No fact checkers? @stevebuttry
— Jeff Edelstein (@jeffedelstein) January 16, 2013
— Jeff Edelstein (@jeffedelstein) January 17, 2013
I asked him if he’d like to write a guest post about his fact-checking experience. Here it is (links added by me):
So yeah. A fact checker. The job was exactly what it sounded like. I checked facts. An article would be assigned, the writer would write, it would go through at least two edits, and then it would land in my hands. Sometimes the author was kind enough to provide phone numbers and relevant materials, other times I had to call the author and beg them for phone numbers and relevant materials.
Fact checkers are not universally loved.
But I had a $6 an hour job to do, and do it I did. Armed with three highlighters, I’d tear into the piece. Every single fact got highlighted in yellow. Everything. Understand me, please: Every single fact. If it wasn’t opinion or quote, it got highlighted. And as facts checked out, the green highlighter was unsheathed. As facts got … well, denied, the pink highlighter came out to shame these wrongs into submission.
And if you thought fact checkers were not universally loved before … well, let’s just say no writer I ever dealt with was happy to hear from me when I said, “Yeah, about that piece … I’ve got 17 questions.”
And honestly, that was probably about near average for a feature. Items presented as facts just didn’t check out. Sometimes I had trouble verifying — this was at dawn of the Internet (we had one connection, to give you some idea of the time frame) and so there were times my frequent library trips and phone calls just couldn’t unearth the information. But sometimes the info was just flat out wrong.
Writing “12” when the writer meant “21” happened often enough, but other times it was just outright … half-truths? That’s an equitable way to put it. Do I remember any in particular? I don’t. It was a long time ago. But trust me. There were errors in virtually every article. (And you can bet that last sentence there would’ve been screaming in yellow. Anyway …)
Anyway, Manti Te’o.
Obviously, there were errors.
So much has already been said, but I want to look at two intertwined aspects.
First one: Sports Illustrated. According to the Deadspin article — if I pieced it together right — SI had a piece on Te’o and his tragedies a little more than two weeks after the “events.” Pete Thamel wrote it, and interviewed Te’o and others, and he got the same the story that had broken some two weeks earlier. Girlfriend, death, etc.
And then it went to fact check. (Thamel discusses it in his recent piece detailing how he was duped.)
Now I’m not going to pretend to understand what happens at SI, but at New Jersey Monthly, when I was there, if I had a story that stated someone was dead, believe me, I was getting confirmation. Would I have settled for Te’o’s word? I couldn’t have. I wouldn’t have been allowed to. My boss would’ve wanted something other than the boyfriend’s say-so.
So I would’ve dug. And I would’ve (hopefully) found my way to the South Bend Tribune article detailing the death of Lennay Kekua. And that probably would have been enough. And if I had found the Associated Press account of the story… gold. Previously published AP gold.
And I’m guessing that’s what happened at SI.
Which brings me to point two: Newspapers don’t fact check. Reporters do their own fact checking (theoretically). Maybe a well-seasoned copy editor might spot some factual errors, but really, when it comes down to it, a newspaper story is generally the work of a single reporter, and we (you) have to trust they did their homework.
The homework wasn’t done in the Te’o case. An article with bad info got published in a newspaper, went up the media chain, and by the time it got to a place where it should have been caught — Sports Illustrated — it wasn’t caught because the fact checkers were working with material that was already A) published gold in reputable publications and B) very, very wrong.
So. Easy answers to this, or similar issues? Of course not. This was a hoax that spiraled up and out, and as every story got written on top of the one before it, the information got more and more cemented as obvious truths.
Scariest part for journalists? This happened and it was sloppy. No obits, no car crash stories, no materials to back up the claims. If anyone dug into it — like Deadspin did — the whole thing unravels. But how hard would it be to plant the material to fool the fact checkers? I could do it if I wanted to. If you’re reading this, I bet you can to. (Stephen Glass, blah blah blah.)
Back to easy answers: Reporters not blindly trusting previously published material would go a long way to being sure something like this doesn’t happen again. Don’t believe everything you read, I guess.
Before I go: I learned to love fact checking, and would probably recommend it as a tool for editors to use during tryouts or interviews with prospective journalists. It’s like showing a prospective mechanic a car engine and then asking them to take it apart and put it back together. Reverse engineering or something. Metaphor is getting stretched.
Oh, and by the way: The title and first paragraph of this piece are a little misleading. I was 25 when I worked for New Jersey Monthly. But you would’ve checked that, right?
Other resources on accuracy and verification
What others should I add?