In Defense of Fact-Checking

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What does Michael Kinsley have against fact-checkers? Apparently the WaPo columnist decided today was a good day to bully the little guys. Now why would he want to do that? Fact-checking, the often thankless task of anonymous magazine interns and staff, is the unsung hero and good-news story of an industry struggling to find any good news at all. Fact-checking is the meticulous and often infuriating pursuit of every detail that goes into a story, checking and rechecking, confirming with sources and scouring of databases and archives for references that may live strong on Wikipedia, but are only confirmable at their headwaters. Does Kinsley not remember the Jayson Blair era? Do we want to go back to everyone wondering if the description of the view from a porch means they’re reading make-believe?

Kinsley uses the Times’ Corrections as an example of why the whole practice is a waste of time:

Who can take facts seriously after reading the daily “Corrections” column in the New York Times? Although the purpose of this column is to demonstrate the Times’s rectitude about taking facts seriously, the facts it corrects are generally so bizarre or trivial and its tone so schoolmarmish that the effect is to make the whole pursuit of factual accuracy seem ridiculous.

The bizarre and trivial corrections he links to include: a map of Georgia putting the 8th district on the border with Alabama rather than in the center of the state where it belongs, the wrong country where a new minerals mine is opening (Canada not Australia), and correcting the street location of a London bookstore featured in a column.

Here’s what Kinsey doesn’t get: if you get the so-called little stuff wrong then people don’t believe you on what you really want them to care about. Readers are smart, and lots of them pay attention. And when they read something, even something tiny, that they know is wrong they, understandably, assume the whole article is suspect.

At Mother Jones we have a tireless team of fact-checkers who pore over all of our content, spending sometimes weeks or months on a single story. They end up amassing a veritable archive of expertise on each subject and our articles end up better, more credible, to be read without cause for pause or doubt. Because it happens that reporters, unlike Kinsley who’s had a “blameless journalistic career” (we’ll assume he’s playing sarcastic here), are capturing and describing complex happenings that they haven’t lived for decades. So it’s understandable that some of the particulars get shifted, confused, transposed, whatever. We all make mistakes, it’s just grand when we have people around who can help us fix them.

If you know anyone who wants to join us in our very own war on errorism have them check out MoJo‘s internship program. True Kinsley, it’s an often bizarre job where we ask factcheckers to go to the ends of the earth to confirm dates and map locations and even oft-repeated historical asides, but we guarantee, in the end, it’s far from trivial.

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This feels like the most important fundraising drive since I've been CEO of Mother Jones, with staggeringly high stakes and so much uncertainty. In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," I try to unpack the reality we all face and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support Mother Jones’ nonprofit journalism: We need to raise $400,000 to help cover the vital reporting projects we have planned, and right now is no time to pull back.

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