The Facts About Fact-Checking

Fact-checking has become a new American past-time, but is it a search for truth or a political witch hunt?

| July/August 2012

Brides magazine has a fact-checker. She does things like verify the cost of honeymoons and makes sure that Vera Wang did, in fact, design that dress, and compares the captions on winter flower bouquet slideshows with pictures in botany reference books. It would be terrible to mistake a eucalyptus pod for a mere pussy willow.

Many American magazines, from trashy celebrity weeklies to highbrow general-interest journals, have fact-checkers of some sort. I worked as one in 2008, when, with three other Harper’s interns, I fact-checked the magazine’s Index from beginning to end. Being the primary speaker of foreign languages in the intern cubicle, I ended up doing a lot of the international checking for the magazine. Percentage of Russians who say one goal of U.S. foreign policy is “the complete destruction of Russia”: 43. Number of Iraqi stray dogs that Operation Baghdad Pups has helped emigrate to the United States since 2003: 66.

I quickly learned that fact-checking is a predominantly American phenomenon. The French don’t do much of it, most Russian papers certainly don’t either, and even the Swiss—possibly the most exacting and precise people on the planet—do not make use of fact-checkers with quite the same fervor as Americans do. Yet their presses keep rolling, and their readers keep reading, and their brides still buy roses, if by another name. People even trust the press in Switzerland much more than they do in the U.S.: a Reader’s Digest poll found 46 percent of Swiss people said they had “high” or “fairly high” confidence in the press in 2010. That same year, Americans with “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of faith in the media made up only 25 percent of those surveyed by Gallup.

What Is a Fact-Checker?

While fact-checking, I found that I spent nearly as much time explaining to people abroad what the hell a fact-checker is as finding the facts themselves. It was frequently assumed that my motive, qua checker, was not accuracy but malice—that I was out to get someone or to prove something wrong. The exchanges that took place between me and my sources sounded a lot like a description in Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon, where Gopnik recounts a politician asking him if a fact-checker is like a “theory checker”—that is, if the young woman sitting in her Times Square cubicle would be grilling him for intellectual consistency. “That there might really be facts worth checking is an obvious and annoying absurdity: it would be naive to think otherwise,” Gopnik writes.

The people Gopnik cites might sound silly, but they were onto something. A new culture of fact-checking is emerging in the U.S.—one that’s much more aggressive than the fact-checking of the past. Enabled by online information sharing and encouraged by a polarized political discourse, facts are being wielded like weapons. We don’t fact-check because we love facts. We fact-check because we hate liars. Why? For starters, there’s the search for truth. This isn’t as squishy and idealistic as it sounds. I know many writers who were profoundly moved by the act of fact-checking, and I, too, found it to be a revelatory experience. Still, it would be absurd to claim that the abundance of fact-checking in the U.S. can be explained because Americans as a people value accuracy more than the Japanese or the French. It would also be very hard to verify.

“Vigilante” Fact-Checking

There is an under-explored financial reason for fact-checkers. Published errors not only look bad, but under certain circumstances, they can lead to lawsuits, which are very expensive indeed. I recently spoke to a media lawyer who told me The National Enquirer employs its law firm to verify information. If they’re willing to spend that kind of money to carry out tasks more commonly relegated to interns and philosophy majors, consider the size of the potential litigation.

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