Do newspapers still employ fact checkers?

So my favorite movie is Desk Set. I desperately want to be Bunny Watson when I grow up. I’m starting to realize that this dream is unlikely to ever happen, not only because I will never achieve that level of fabulousness, but also because every time I watch the TV news or pick up a newspaper (this applies to both local and national media sources), it occurs to me that jobs like that must not even exist anymore.

I’m not being snotty here – I’m really curious. Does anyone know? On the one hand, I can imagine that those would be the sort of jobs viewed as most readily dispensable, since they technically produce nothing, and therefore, the first to go, probably during a long ago round of layoffs. On the other hand – if you’re the newspaper, getting your facts right is important!

It’s sort of like when I used to work in the research department of a commercial real estate company. Research areawide was, in my opinion, understaffed – the company was not interest in pouring a lot of resources into a non-revenue producing division. But the revenue producers could not do their jobs at all without our work! Or like when I used to work in the pastry department at a fancy restaurant in San Francisco. The chef was always complaining about how high our department’s labor cost was compared to the hot line. “Why do you need to employ 5 people full time plus an intern to sell like 60 $12 desserts a night?” she wondered, always behaving as if the obvious, unstated answer was that we were all completely inept. But actually, it was because we were spending much of our time producing all this stuff that the restaurant gave away for free, like intermezzos to cleanse the palate between savory and sweet on the tasting menu, and little plates of elaborate mignardises that everyone gets when finishing their meal, and boxes of fancy chocolates for all our patrons to take home with them. These are things that cost money to produce, and provide no revenue, but add value to the diner’s experience nonetheless.

Which brings me back to fact-checking. I complain about things the Trib gets wrong or overlooks when it comes to local politics and development a lot, and I think most people would agree that those errors are important to note. What I’m about to complain about will probably (okay, definitely) seem incredibly petty in comparison. But it’s been bothering me for the last four hours, and I just can’t seem to stop thinking about it. Anyway…I sort of choked on my coffee this morning when I read this line:

The ship made famous as the USS Interceptor in one of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies is open for tours in Jack London Square this weekend.

No! It’s the HMS Interceptor! How did nobody catch that? Hasn’t everyone seen that movie by now? And if not, would it be so hard to glance at the Wikipedia entry about it? The entire story takes place in the colonial Carribean! The pirates are being chased by the Royal Navy! There’s this whole confusing subplot about the East India Company! OMG!

7 thoughts on “Do newspapers still employ fact checkers?

  1. Mike Hardy

    In my experience, the more you know about a subject, the less you can stand to read popular media accounts about it. And $deity help you if you were actually a participant, prepare for misquotes and bizarre characterizations galore.

    The typical smug wisecrack is something along the lines of “how could you expect them to get ___ right, they got a degree in *journalism* not ___”. I prefer to hold people to a higher standard though, even if it’s consistently disappointing.

    More frequently now, I find that’s what a tremendously dedicated topical blog (that’d be you for Oakland local stuff) can fill the gap on.

  2. Jessica

    No, newspapers do not employ fact checkers. Reporters are expected to get it right.

    Most magazines still have fact checkers, although more and more they’re using cheap or free intern labor for this task.

  3. Jim Ratliff

    Slate’s article, “Who Uses Fact Checkers, Anyway?,” , confirms Jessica with respect to newspapers:

    [L]ike virtually every other daily, the Times doesn’t use fact checkers to verify stories before publication. According to the paper’s “Guidelines on Our Integrity,” writers are usually solely responsible for checking such details as spellings, geographical locations, and titles. The research desk sometimes assists with more esoteric queries, and when a deadline is particularly pressing, a reporter may ask the copy desk to confirm a fact. But on the whole, the accuracy burden sits squarely on the reporter’s shoulders.

    No professional organization keeps statistics on the percentage of newspaper stories that are fact-checked, but the consensus is that it’s quite low.