Fact-checking is essential — and not just by copy editors

1 Feb

The biggest problem in journalism today? Lazy fact-checking. Or no fact-checking at all.

Why is this? Well, there are deadlines. There is pressure. Most of all, especially in today’s society, people want their news right away. This makes it hard for editors to check every single fact. I think many newspaper editors realize that its staff does need to challenge reporters and their content; however, because copy editors end up staying in the newsroom until the wee hours of the morning, they want to just focus on AP Style and grammar and get the hell out of there. Although fact-checking is necessary, it just hasn’t been happening lately, even on programs like “60 Minutes.”

During my time as a copy editor at the Independent Florida Alligator, which is notorious for getting at least one fact error each week, the copy desk chiefs told us to check every single fact. However, I think a lot of us slacked off and were lazy, deciding to just check for style errors. We really could have used some of the tips provided by Palm Nelson of the American Copy Editors Society, which, after reading them over, should be posted by every newsroom’s copy desk. When I became copy desk chief after working at the student paper for almost a year, I didn’t really think about the huge responsibility I had inherited. I also realized, when looking more closely at stories, that many of the reporters would spell people’s names incorrectly and not really look over all of their facts in general. However, any errors in the paper ended up being the copy editor’s fault. As a result, I got irritated frequently at the office.

A lot of reporters and editors especially forget to check numerical figures, a.k.a. math. This is probably because all of us majoring in journalism wanted so badly to get away from math. However, if you get a person’s age wrong in a story, it could mean your job. In his 1999 speech from the Gannett editors meeting, Reid MacCluggage covered this point well. Dr. Norman Lewis, my former newspaper editing professor, gave us all a section on math to work on in his class, and although I hated it with everything I had, I am so grateful that he made us think about checking numbers in stories.

In addition, many political stories need a lot of fact-checking, in my opinion. Thankfully, there are some websites, like FactCheck.org, that are dedicated to questioning the accuracy in political speeches. This is especially important now, with the Republican primaries going on.

What I really liked about being copy desk chief, however, was being able to look at the bigger picture — the story as a whole. I started looking at the ledes and I tried to see if the story actually made any sense. On flats, I would also be able to see if the headlines actually described what the stories were about. These rules, and a few other essential ones, are covered by Red Gibson from Virginia’s Press in an article from over 20 years ago. It’s crazy to think that even though we operate newspapers in a technology-powered world, rules about fact-checking from an article published in 1988 could still be applied today. Newspapers are still facing fact-checking dilemmas, just like they did 50 years ago.

Conclusion? Fact-checking is not just the copy editors’ job; reporters and section editors need to look over the whole story as well. I learned this by working at the Alligator, and even though there are time constraints in newsroom, accuracy is what should come first, not how much sleep we get that night.

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