Press Pause

Checking Facts Like Freddie and Eleanor

Facts should be the oxygen of journalism.

For 45 years, Freddie Packard worked for the New Yorker as a “checker,” and for two decades he ran the magazine’s fact-checking department. Packard knew at least four languages, loved reference books, and “knew the lineage of many hundreds of popular songs.” He met his wife, Eleanor Gould, at the magazine, and the couple married in 1946. They worked together until Packard’s death in 1974.

“Facts correctly stated were sacred to him,” according to a New Yorker memorial, “and woe betide the writer who chose to be approximate rather than precise!”

The magazine, which has won or been a finalist for at least 40 National Magazine Awards in “reporting” or “reporting excellence,” still prizes the same precision. Peter Canby, who oversees the fact-checking department these days, said last fall that the magazine employed 16 checkers. He calls his department’s charge “reporting in reverse.” A fact-checker, Canby said in a 2002 lecture at Columbia University, “stands outside the piece and becomes central to closing and editing it.”

But fact-checking isn’t always so central—a lesson we learned time and again last year as many news outlets turned breaking news into something simply broken.

“CNN and Fox News initially reported, wrongly, that the Supreme Court had struck down the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act,” said Brooke Gladstone, co-host of WNYC’s On the Media. “ABC News reporter Brian Ross implied, wrongly, that the Aurora, Colorado, shooter James Holmes was a member of the local Tea Party. Interns at NPR and the Wall Street Journal were caught, respectively, plagiarizing and fabricating.” The list goes on.

Facts should be the oxygen of journalism, yet stories deprived of them frequently live long enough to mislead us. In some instances, a news outlet in a rush—to meet a deadline, to scoop a competitor, to win bragging rights or a bigger audience—skips an additional round of verification, and then publishes inaccurate information. In others, a reporter misunderstands his subject, or an editor misreads a sentence. And in the worst of cases, a new hire feeling pressure to perform submits false copy that’s so well-faked that otherwise discerning editors can’t sniff it out. Ten years after New York Times reporter Jayson Blair “lied and faked and cheated his way” through his work, Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan said the scandal is “still a touchy subject.”

A dozen Freddie Packards standing outside a New Yorker story couldn’t eliminate every error; a search for “correction” in the magazine’s digital archive returns 1,766 results. But very few news outlets have a dozen Freddie Packards. Many don’t have any. After a few reporters challenged the facts in a 2012 Newsweek feature criticizing Barack Obama’s presidency, Politico’s Dylan Byers contacted the magazine and asked whether it had a fact-checking department. The response? “We, like other news organizations today, rely on our writers to submit factually accurate material.”

Ira Glass offered a similar explanation after his popular radio program, This American Life, broadcast a story about labor conditions at an Apple factory in China that contained a number of false statements.

“We used to fact-check the way they do on the daily National Public Radio news shows,” said Glass during an online discussion. “… Editors and reporters consult about questionable facts, run down stuff in an ad hoc way.” Months after the error, Glass told an interviewer that his program “set aside $60,000 in this year’s budget to hire freelance fact-checkers.”

It’s difficult to know which news outlets have robust fact-checking operations. An acquaintance who studies misinformation told me in an e-mail that he’d “never seen anything quantifying the fact-checking that goes on (or doesn’t) in regular media outlets.” Moreover, explanations like those above suggest a reporter and editor should be able to separate false information from true. I’ve yet to work for an editor that hasn’t shared that goal but, as Elvis Costello sings, accidents will happen.

Journalism is a multi-step process, and each step offers an opportunity for a reporter, editor, or—if we’re lucky—fact-checker to ask: Are you sure? Bad journalism introduces error by not asking that question at each step. Good journalism should place only the most precise facts before you. As a writer at an alternative newsweekly, I often felt free to be a smart-ass with my prose, so long as I’d done the reporting to back it up.

“Are you sure?” should also be on the mind of every news consumer. Fact-checkers or no, errors proliferate in the news, from inaccurate maps to unadvisable Bloody Mary recipes. If you don’t regularly discuss news with your local reporters, then talk with your neighbors. Before the morning paper or evening news, prepare yourself to be incredulous. If you notice something that sounds inaccurate, check it out yourself. If you’re right, then let the news outlet know. Corrections go a long way to alerting editors to newsroom trouble, and help shape your fellow readers’ expectations. Behind every good fact-checker should be a skeptical reader, because there are no fact-checkers behind us before the “news” turns into “history.”

Who was behind Freddie Packard? Eleanor Gould, who worked at the New Yorker without a proper job title, remained at the magazine for another 25 years after her husband’s death. “She was not a fact-checker, though she did find errors,” her New York Times obituary said. “She was not a story editor, copy editor or proofreader.” Yet she shared her husband’s hunger for accuracy. Recalling her notes on his work, long-time contributor John McPhee said Gould “would surely mention any fact she looked upon as suspect.”

While reassuring, a world with more Freddie Packards remains a fallible world. We should aspire to be like Eleanor Gould, to be fact-checkers without titles. If we don’t demand precision, then we face peril.