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American Journalism Review
Playing Defense  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   September 1998

Playing Defense   

Is enough being done to prevent future journalistic embarrassments?

By Judith Sheppard
Judith Sheppard teaches journalism at Auburn University.     

Business Week Editor In Chief Stephen Shepard does not ordinarily speak in the language of a Tennessee Williams play, but then these weren't ordinary times. For the past two months, prominent journalists working for well-respected organizations had been falling from grace faster than meteors streaking out of a summer sky. So, on July 1, Shepard wrote a memo, attached it to five pages about ethics and sourcing photocopied from his publication's editorial handbook, and sent the whole thing to his staff.

But it was only a gesture. Like most news organizations, Business Week has no choice but to put its trust in the fairness and accuracy of its reporters, because neither money nor time allows for writers' work to be formally fact-checked.

"In the end," Shepard admits, sounding a little like Blanche DuBois, "we are dependent on the honesty of our people."

Both boast and lament, that statement echoes in newsrooms, broadcast studios and editorial offices all over the country. Even before the very public reprimand of Pulitzer Prize-winning CNN correspondent Peter Arnett and the dismissals of two CNN producers for airing allegations that weren't rigorously verified, exposure of fabrications by The New Republic's Stephen Glass and the Boston Globe's Patricia Smith had sent a collective shudder through the magazine and newspaper industry. Months earlier, the Dallas Morning News had retracted a story about a Secret Service agent seeing President Clinton and an intern in a "compromising" situation. By the time Shepard drafted his memo, the Cincinnati Enquirer had run a front-page apology for three days for a series on Chiquita Brands International written by staffer Mike Gallagher. In a June 28 story, the paper said Gallagher had deceived top editors and Publisher Harry M. Whipple about his reporting methods.

Journalists have always known they are judged by how well they follow Joseph Pulitzer's three rules of the profession--"accuracy, accuracy, accuracy"--and that they will never achieve perfection. But the public perception of their shortcomings has never been darker, while the pressures--electronic competition, the need to be first with the startling story, the need to "tweak" a good story into greatness with a few tricks from the novelist's bag--are at their greatest. At the same time, newsmagazines are curtailing their fact-checking budgets and requiring their writers to verify those details once double-checked by others. And at many newspapers, those traditional sentinels of accuracy, editors and copy editors, are expected to focus more than ever on presentation of stories, less on their content.

The result, say some, is a profession that invites invective not only by misspelling names and getting dates wrong, but also by sometimes seeming unable to tell a straight story--just the facts, ma'am--without spin and a sexy flourish.

"It goes beyond the need for fact-checking," says Paul Janensch, a journalism teacher at Quinnipiac College in Hamden, Connecticut, who spent 30 years in the business with UPI and as top editor at three papers. "It's concept checking. It's point-of-view checking. Are all the minute facts correlated; are they assembled in the right way? Where are we going with this?.. Errors have always been made, but there just isn't the care and caution and the internal skepticism there used to be. These days, hype trumps accuracy. We want to be first, we want to make a splash, and we get kind of careless with these messy details."

In fact, it's time to make "a fetish of accuracy," says Edward Seaton, publisher and editor in chief of Kansas' Manhattan Mercury and president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. That organization--which this year gave its Distinguished Writing Award to the Boston Globe's Smith, then took it back--is in the middle of a three-year study of the declining credibility of newspapers. Their tendency to make errors, large and small, appears a major culprit, Seaton says.

"I think that newspapers have been under increasing competitive pressures for people's time. I suppose it goes back to when radio came in. We've been concerned about keeping readers' attention, storytelling and writing techniques," Seaton says. "We're trying to find our niche, and we've shifted in some of our writing and writing techniques, as I think we need to, but we cannot lose sight of the essence of our mission."

Those pressures have changed the "culture of editing," so that respected news organizations now relay "facts" they never even try to verify, says John Seigenthaler, founder of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. "There's a mindset that if anybody sees it, everybody should see it. I'm afraid that flow from tabloid journals and news programs into mainstream news has created an unwillingness on the part of some editors to say no... Everybody thinks they have to run with it, whether or not it is checked out for reliability.

"Once the editor, the sentinel at the gate, begins not to question sharply the reporters who produce the news and the sources of the reporters..then I think that culture changes, and we get sloppy reporting and, sadly, we now know, fraudulent reporting."

How bad is it? The views include an optimistic take on recent missteps from the Philadelphia Inquirer's John V. R. Bull, president of the Organization of News Ombudsmen. "Half a dozen incidents in the [17] years since Janet Cooke doesn't seem like a major problem," he says.

But others take the pessimistic view that standards have definitely slipped. "We're all getting to be very sloppy with our work," says Janet Keefer, dean of Drake University's School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a former CNN producer. "We need to do more going back to the reporter and asking, 'Are you sure about this?' "

H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger, a longtime newspaper reporter and author and now a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, is blunter. The recent spate of disgraces represents "journalism's dirty little secrets coming to light," he says. "There is a decline in the level of editing, of wanting to make sure of getting it right. At magazines now, there's not as much interest in being right as being provocative."

And it's spilling over to newspapers and television, Bissinger says. Scrambling for their niche, he says, newspapers in particular have begun to ask: "How can we tell these sexy stories that are getting so much attention?"

Bissinger recently completed a story on Glass for Vanity Fair, which has, he says, a "fabulous" fact-checking system. He blames commercial pressures and authors' ambitions for stories based on "facts" that are, as the adage goes, too good to check. "This terrible blend of fiction and nonfiction, this seamless narrative that's so provocative, is done so editors will sit up in their chairs and say, 'Wow, this is perfect.' "

At the least, this cluster of media embarrassments is "a wake-up call in many ways," says Jackie Leo, president of the American Society of Magazine Editors and editorial director at Consumer Reports. "Editors have to be very wary of the fracturing of the media that makes you want to shout the story and then check out the facts of it later."

In fact, that fracturing of media and their correspondingly heightened level of competition bring a tendency to cut costs and remove a layer of safeguard editing and fact-checking--at just the wrong time, many say. "With the countless ways information is coming now, the news moves faster and the need to get things out has increased; the ability to get things out has increased," says Renee Michael, a full-time fact-checker at the New York Times Magazine. "I think, as a result, we're more vulnerable to making mistakes. Researchers and fact-checkers are needed more than ever."

But that doesn't appear to be the trend. Though many techniques of ensuring accuracy remain--at Business Week, it's called "red dotting"; at other magazines, green, black or red pencils are used to note the items to be double-checked--it's getting harder to find full-fledged fact-checking departments or even full-time fact-checkers. Most weekly and bimonthly magazines long ago abandoned the term "fact-checker," an archaic job title, says Time's Marta Dorion, hearkening back to the days when only women fact-checked. Men, of course, did the reporting, writing and editing. "Besides," says Dorion of the 29 full- and part-time people in her fact-checking and reporting department who, like their counterparts at similar magazines, are now called reporters, "they do so much more."

Indeed they do. Many are also writing stories, perhaps half the time, says Luisa Kroll, deputy chief of reporters at Forbes. But the system hasn't weakened, she says. Instead, Forbes is adding personnel and "beefing up" its "rigorous" fact-checking system because of the addition of new sections to the magazine, she says.

"We print out the document, we highlight everything that needs checking, we do the math over," says Kroll. "There's a top sheet which lists every single source, and we check that. We go over [the story] with the writer and the editor and then the copy desk... We rework a story from scratch. Every single story that gets in the magazine gets fact-checked."

But most weeklies don't make that claim, even those--such as Time and Newsweek--that once did. Except in some cases--when authors or freelancers are too new to have won editors' complete confidence, or when editors consider stories late-breaking, controversial or unusually complicated--traditional fact-checking isn't always required, say newsmagazine staffers. An October 1997 memo from Time Managing Editor Walter Isaacson made clear that "the journalist is more responsible now for the accuracy of his story," says Dorion.

Sharing the responsibility for accuracy between writer and fact-checker, long a goal of Dorion's, had actually been put into place about two years ago, when Time moved its international desks to London and Hong Kong, Dorion says. In that restructuring, 12 people took buyouts and have not been replaced. "It is accurate there are fewer today than there were five years ago," she says. "But we do have those staffs abroad; we have special staffs for special projects, and I use freelancers more now."

A similar restructuring took place at Newsweek about three years ago, says Assistant Managing Editor Ann McDaniel. She says though the magazine was widely reported to have eliminated its fact-checkers, Newsweek just streamlined its procedures and modernized its processes. "Top editors started thinking and talking about some redundancy between the library and the research system... We decided to reform our library system and make it much more modern..thus freeing up some money which we could spend on journalists."

The point was, McDaniel says, "Why have a fully staffed library and a fully staffed research group, when they were doing the same thing?" For many stories, Newsweek editors decided "we could hold our reporters and writers to the same standards newspapers hold their people to."

Curtailed fact-checking isn't to blame for some of the recent embarrassments at other organizations, McDaniel says. "In every instance where there was fact-checking involved, it seems to me the fact-checkers did their job. At The New Republic, it seems to me what happened there is, Stephen Glass is a bad journalist who set out to trick the system."

Former Newsweek staffer Dody Tsiantar, now deputy chief of reporters at Money magazine, says her current employer also changed its fact-checking policies and personnel, without a loss of accuracy.

"Writers and reporters are being held more responsible for their own work; it's a logical thing," says Tsiantar. "Writers should be responsible for what they do... It's a different way of approaching things. I can't say one's better and one's good... We are basically looking at a piece with fresh eyes, going from top to bottom... Of course, it's great if you can have the luxury" of full-time fact-checkers.

Not many magazines offer that now.

But a few do. Take Vanity Fair, that vivid, glossy monthly that frequent-ly sandwiches meticulously researched, groundbreaking reports on crime, international affairs and politics between celebrity photographs and scandalous slices of Hollywood life. Or the sophisticated weekly New Yorker, long revered as "the Vatican" of fact-checking.

With large fact-checking rosters averaging 18 and 16 people, respectively, some of whom are freelancers, these magazines use some of the same methods that many publications, including this one, employ. They ask for source lists and copies of documents used; they check documents, and they call the sources quoted. Without reading back the wording of the quotes, they check the facts and general accuracy of them.

But some of their additional methods would startle, perhaps even insult, reporters trained to surrender notes only when subpoenaed. Fact-checkers at those two magazines routinely require writers to hand over all notes, tapes and transcripts. "We get everything," says Pat Singer, head of the fact-checking ("research") department at Vanity Fair.

The New Yorker's head of fact-checking, Peter Canby, says the writer's materials are read and examined exhaustively, but he offers a qualifier. "It's a complicated system... We do keep them for legal background, but yes, we do read" the notes as well.

Both magazines keep files on the stories. How long they keep a file depends on how controversial the subject is.

The need for meticulousness was reinforced by an embarrassing lawsuit against writer Janet Malcolm, who admitted reconstructing lengthy quotes in a New Yorker profile of a psychiatrist. Though the Supreme Court in 1991 ruled that Malcolm had used acceptable techniques to capture the essence of the interviews, the very public case was part of the reason The New Yorker began requiring notes.

The magazines differ as to what types of notes they want from writers. Singer says she well understands how difficult it can be to write clearly during interviews, so "some writers whose handwriting is bad will type their notes for us." Canby says he wants the real McCoy, not cleaned-up versions.

Requiring notes from writers may become a trend for nervous editors, but it doesn't sit well with many freelancers, says Eleanor Foa Dienstag, president of the American Society of Authors and Journalists. "First of all, writers don't turn over their notes," says Dienstag firmly. "All you can discover from looking at somebody's notes is that they're quoting from their notes... Good writers want their work fact-checked, but [demanding notes] seems misplaced energy to me."

Besides, checking writers' notes--even when you can decipher them--isn't foolproof. There's a reason, says Bissinger, it's called fact-checking, not fraud-checking. Just ask Rolling Stone. Said to have one of the industry's most exacting fact-checking processes, the bimonthly published six articles by Stephen Glass, a former fact-checker himself who apparently knew how to create convincing-looking notes.

In the backwash of the Glass incidents, Rolling Stone is exercising more caution. The magazine had already specified in its contracts that writers hand over their notes and all backup materials. Now, says Assistant Managing Editor Perry van der Meer, "We are being infinitely more diligent." Three full-time people do nothing but fact-check; at times, that staff is augmented with three or four freelancers.

"We have a certain approach now, not an adversarial approach to your authors, but you do want it to be an independent one," van der Meer says. "What we're trying to do now is convey to our authors the mutual self-interest of having all this nailed down."

The magazine has acknowledged problems with two of the six pieces written by Glass, including one on U.S. News & World Report's college ranking system, in which Glass apparently invented meetings, quotations and characters. In an August 6 apology to U.S. News, Rolling Stone Managing Editor Robert Love said, "We vow to be ever more vigilant in our fact-finding and editing procedures."

But van der Meer repeats a fact of journalistic life that editors frequently return to: "The issue is always what is realistically manageable under deadline, so you really do depend on the veracity of what your reporters provide you."

Shortened turn-around times on stories at magazines used to luxurious lead times has ratcheted up the tensions and demands on fact-checkers. "Tina [Brown] did want to make the magazine much more timely, so there are pieces being written at breakneck speed," says The New Yorker's Canby. "In the old magazine we didn't really run the same kind of pieces--they were thoughtful pieces people had been working on for a long time, not so much in-the-face as we do now... Now, our more complicated pieces have to do with breaking news stories. And scandals can be prodigiously demanding for fact-checking." Those deadline pieces are "much more difficult to check, and the risks are much higher, particularly with the danger of libel," Canby says.

"The New Yorker does dedicate a lot, spend a lot of money on those resources... They want us out there aggressively checking, getting back to the people who talk to writers," Canby adds.

Aggressive as it may be, fact-checking, say its practitioners, is an art. A fact-checker who is clumsy can become a "wrecking ball" on a story, says Canby, alienating writers and sources alike. "It requires a huge amount of diplomacy." Indeed, magazines value the individuality of their writers' styles almost as much as their accuracy. Almost.

The process is painstaking. Canby says he looks for fact-checkers with "split minds"--the education and interests of a generalist, the surgeon's focus on detail. Singer says she looks for "terrier-like" personalities, people for whom fact-checking is a career, not a corridor to a writing job.

The pay is enough to live on, though not cushy. Though few figures on salaries are available, Dorion says Time's full-time fact-checkers start at almost $33,000, because they are covered by the New York Newspaper Guild. But part-timers and freelancers, of whom there are many, may make less than $20 an hour, says Singer, though she declined to discuss salaries at Vanity Fair.

Neither Canby nor Singer requires journalism backgrounds in their employees, though Singer says newspaper experience is helpful. Canby says many of the people he hires are scholars who have left academia but retain the discipline "to do very specific and exact research" and speak at least two languages. Yet they must also work subtly enough to confirm information without allowing sources to reframe stories, breaking direct quotes down into elements so that the facts are checked without offering sources the chance to retract or rephrase. Proofs are never sent out to sources for review, but the facts in them are run through a vetting process facilitated by extensive reference libraries, Nexis searches and, with skepticism, Internet searches.

Most fact-checkers and editors say they wouldn't accept the anonymous "sources" whom Glass apparently exhorted his fact-checkers at various magazines not to contact. Canby says his magazine does not have a blanket policy against them; but writers are asked to make it clear to sources that their identities or evidence may be revealed to magazine editors or fact-checkers.

Singer says Vanity Fair allows no phantom sources. "We know our sources exist, how they are in a position to know what they know," she says. "We always have some form of contact with the source. To me, that's very basic."

One more fact-checking caveat. Most researchers rarely trust newspaper clips. Not formally fact-checked before publication, say magazine staffers, they're just too prone to contain errors. "We're not going to trust that the New York Times has been fact-checked," says Forbes' Kroll.

The result, say fact-checkers, is deconstruction of a story which, when confirmed, not only corresponds to the writer's sources but fits into an informed, logical context. "We don't just work inside the sources the author gave us," says Canby. "We want to take a look and get a general sense of the story--did [the writers] do a balanced approach, does the thesis they're promoting, if they are, make good sense? We try to connect the story to the general world."

Says Singer: "The kind of thing we're looking for is not just 'Does this make sense?' but 'Is this just too tidy?' "

It's a concern that Thomas Patterson, Harvard's Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press, thinks is important. "Journalism has moved away from a descriptive style to an analytic model," he says. "That kind of journalism is a swamp in a way the older style wasn't... Sometimes the story line gets assembled first, and in some of these stories a whole [secondary] fact-gathering process needs to be done--a heightened scrutiny."

It's the kind of checking that CNN now regrets not doing with its sarin nerve gas story. Officials there freely admit that one great error was producing the story in isolation from its own experts--Jamie McIntyre, its military affairs correspondent, and Perry Smith, its military analyst, who quit after the story ran. Tom Johnson, CNN News Group president, chairman and CEO, "has made it very clear he expects that not to happen anymore," says CNN spokesman Steve Haworth. "The walls around units will be broken down. People are required to consult beat reporters and staff experts early in their reporting."

Some other back-up systems are being put in place. CNN is in the process of moving executive producer Richard Davis--of "Crossfire," "Late Edition," "Capital Gang" and "Reliable Sources" fame--into a new position: executive vice president of editorial standards and practices. In this job, the details of which are to be decided, Davis will bring "one more experienced, impartial journalistic viewpoint to material," Haworth says.

CNN's new job is modeled on his own, says ABC News' Richard Wald. The senior vice president oversees editorial quality. Wald has held the job for about five years, but it is a cautionary layer added about 15 years ago, when ABC began investing in newsmagazines, he says. "I read scripts, look at the pictures destined to go on the air, look into background of things," says Wald, whose credentials include former managing editor of the New York Herald-Tribune and former president of NBC News. "If I'm interested in a quote, I may ask for the transcript. If I'm interested in the pictures, I may ask, 'How did you get this?' I do what any normal editor would do."

Television's oldest newsmagazine, "60 Minutes," has a senior editor, Esther Kartiganer, whose sole job is "to check what goes on the air against the unused notes and interviews to make sure the story is true to its origins," said Don Hewitt, executive producer, in a statement released by spokesman Kevin Tedesco. In addition: "No story goes on the air unless it has been signed off on by a correspondent who is satisfied that this is the story he or she wants to tell."

Bill Wheatley, vice president for news at NBC, says a three-person "standards staff" there oversees magazine pieces. Headed by senior producer David McCormick, "these are senior people who look over every script, sit down with the correspondent, talk it through with them, often read the transcripts," says Wheatley. Sometimes, as at all the networks, staff lawyers are consulted. Some of these steps, Wheatley adds, were put into place after "Dateline" admitted in 1992 that it rigged a GMC truck to explode, to illustrate a design flaw in its gas tank.

But network officials emphasize that, in the end, their trust must lie in their people. In July, after Arnett said he had little more than an on-camera role in the Tailwind piece, CNN issued an edict, says Haworth, that "insofar as correspondents may have been parachuted in to read reports prepared by others in the past, if it has been done very widely, it will not happen again. Reporters will be held accountable for what they put on the air."

All say they expect no "chilling" effect on investigative or controversial pieces; instead, reporters have been reminded of the importance of the basics. "We have been reminded, any number of times, of how fragile journalism can be, and the importance of getting it right," says Wheatley.

But outside influences aren't making it easier.

"Perhaps we live in an age of Oliver Stone docudramas that deem it OK to mix fact with fiction," Business Week's Shepard wrote pensively in his memo to his staff. "Perhaps the Matt Drudge definition of accuracy [80 percent right is OK] is acceptable in the world of the Internet. Perhaps there has taken hold a deconstructionist notion that truth is unknowable and therefore not worth pursuing."

Sadly, Bissinger says, stretching the truth is sometimes rewarded. "We all see what stories get attention, the stories people talk about and emulate, so we're seeing this horrible conflict between journalism, which is some reflection of reality, and entertainment, which is simply a reflection of entertainment," he says. "This is becoming a profession that is as interested in profits and ratings and getting ahead as any corporation could be.

"The only difference is, we still have our First Amendment right, and sometimes I wonder why we still have it."



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