Keep Checking Those Facts

Almost anyone can be a reporter now. How can we ensure that self-nominated reporters respect the truth?

BUDAPEST - At a recent conference of newspaper editors, I attended a discussion on journalism and new media. When I told the group I had begun my career as a magazine fact-checker, several people grew misty-eyed, like priests hearing about someone's childhood as an altar boy.

I brought up my past because I think that fact-checking is the single best form of training, not just for journalism, but for life in general. It teaches you to think skeptically. It is easy to believe something when someone who appears knowledgeable asserts it. But if you are responsible for checking facts, you pay more attention.

What sources did the speaker use? Is there something in it for him - a higher stock price, an advertising fee, or someone's gratitude? Or is he simply biased because of the people he knows, the company he works for, or the attitudes he was raised on at home?

I spent hours picking through sources - mostly dusty newspapers, in the years before the Internet, or strangers on the telephone - to clarify facts: Was this really the first such product? Was Mr. Smith 42 or already 43? Was his claim that revenues had grown for the last five years true merely because of acquisitions his company had made? And so on.

My life was ruled by "tk," which stands for "to kum" - or "to come" - in reporters' jargon. We fact-checkers would joke about the lazy reporters who handed us copy that read, for example: "Juan Tigar, tk years old, grew up in tk before studying at tk. Now tk title at Widgets Corp., he ..." Our job was to fill in the tk's.

But we learned an enormous amount. We learned not just thousands of facts that I have since forgotten, but skepticism coupled with reverence for the truth.

That contrasts with the skepticism I once heard a Russian reporter describing: "Whenever we read an article about the dangers of butter to our health, we would immediately run out and buy as much butter as we could find," she told me. "We knew it meant there was about to be a shortage." In other words, Russians looked only for the agenda, the motivation behind the assertion. The actual truth was irrelevant.

Of course, spin, propaganda and censorship persist in journalism, but there's one big difference: Almost anyone can be a reporter now. How can we ensure that self-nominated reporters respect the truth?

In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission has announced plans to require bloggers and celebrity endorsers to disclose gifts or payments from vendors and others seeking positive coverage. But what about other kinds of bias?

As the journalistic priesthood erodes and everyone can become a citizen reporter or commentator, regulating or training all would-be journalists is not the answer. In line with the grassroots, do-it-yourself ethos of the Internet, where people book their own flights, publish their own photos and sell their own second-hand goods, it should be the responsibility of the readers to do their own fact-checking.

This is not to say that journalists should not check their own facts (or that priests should not observe the tenets of their own religion). But in the end, everyone has to become a better reader - more skeptical and more curious. Why is this story getting so much attention? Does this blogger ever say anything negative, or is she always talking about the great products she uses? Does she include any kind of disclosures on her blog? Why is this politician saying nice things about that politician? What company does the product reviewer work for?

Governments can impose regulations, but that will not give us the kind of journalism we want. If we ask for it, Web sites will offer not just content, but ways to rank reputations, so that contributors can build theirs up as reliable sources (or not).

We should not outlaw anonymity (which has its benefits), but we can ask for information about the people whose words we are reading. Someone may legitimately want to remain anonymous, but we can draw our own conclusions about their reasons.

That much thinking may sound like a lot of work, but it is what is required of a responsible adult these days. Compared to a century ago, people spend less time laboring to ensure their physical existence. But, in this increasingly confusing world, we need to spend a little more time laboring to ensure our own intellectual integrity - a task that we cannot outsource to governments or even to the media. Facts are holy, but not all media sources that claim to report them, "new" or old, can be trusted.

Copyright Syndicate, 2009.