Ever since this year’s presidential campaign kicked into high gear, everybody’s become a fact-checker, from tweeters watching the party conventions at home right on up to Tim Kaine, who used the vice-presidential debate as a forum for grilling Mike Pence about the veracity of various statements made by Donald Trump. So it seems like a particularly apt time for the University of Chicago Press to release the latest in its series of publishing guides, The Chicago Guide to Fact-Checking.
Fact-checking, author Brooke Borel notes, is more than plucking facts from random sources off the Internet that prove or disprove a candidate’s statement. It’s a discipline in itself, requiring patience, tact, and judgment as well as proficiency with the Googles. “If journalism is the cornerstone of democracy,” she writes, “then fact-checking is the building inspector, ensuring that the structure of a piece of writing is sound.” Unfortunately, it’s a skill that’s rarely taught in journalism schools or practiced in newsrooms. In the ten years I’ve been a reporter, I’ve often checked information with sources in order to save myself embarrassment later, but I’ve done a full fact check of the sort Borel teaches here only twice. It’s tedious and time-consuming and surprisingly difficult work. But I would agree with Borel that it should be done more often.
Borel is a science journalist (her previous book was Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World), but she began her career as a fact-checker. She bases her instruction on her own practices, plus a survey of 234 journalists and interviews with 91 specialists. (Full disclosure: I was one of the journalists, but none of my wisdom or experiences made it into the book.) Many of the tips she offers here are useful not just to fact-checkers, but also to reporters and researchers, particularly the chapter on checking different kinds of facts. Some of her advice is elementary, such as to get as close to the original source as possible and to avoid Wikipedia, but she’s especially good at explaining the different levels of attribution, which many journalists don’t completely understand, and how scientific studies and statistics can be misunderstood and manipulated. She reiterates one piece of advice so often it almost seems like a mantra: When in doubt, ask an expert.
Still, stories like Rolling Stone‘s infamous incomplete investigation of a gang rape at the University of Virginia, as well as fabricators like the New Republic‘s Stephen Glass, somehow get past the fact-checking gatekeepers. Borel offers explanations for these lapses, though not with any great depth, maybe because they’ve been discussed so often elsewhere. Glass, who was the New Republic‘s head fact-checker before he became a reporter, knew the questions that would be asked and created his own source material. Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the Rolling Stone writer, relied too heavily on one source, and the magazine’s editors ignored the fact-checkers’ concerns.
Borel includes exercises to “think like a fact-checker.” This habit of mind, she argues, can make for better readers and better online citizens. Is it too much to hope that it can make for a better democracy? v