You Call That Fact-Checking?

By Carl Zimmer | February 21, 2009 3:50 pm

While recovering from an extracted wisdom tooth this morning, I cheered up when I saw that Talking Points Memo and other blogs have picked up my grousing about George Will’s error-laden global warming column in the Washington Post. When I first became aware of Will’s column on Monday, it seemed to me the perfect example of the general problem with treating op-ed pages as “opinion.” That is, if by opinion, you mean that someone doesn’t have to adhere to the facts. I could state that the Earth is 6000 years old, and no one would dare correct me, because it’s just my opinion. (I guess that’s the rationale that led Forbes and US News to run pieces by young-Earth creationists as “commentary” a couple weeks ago in “honor” of Darwin’s birthday. [Okay. No more air quotes. Promise.])

Now we learn via Andrew Alexander, the Washington Post‘s ombudsman, that the editorial page has a whole team of fact-checkers. Or at least there are personal assistants to George Will, a couple syndication editors, and Post copy editors who have been identified as fact-checkers. Somehow, this army all decided that Will’s piece was just dandy. Even weirder was the post-modern refusal to run a correction from Alan Shearer, the Washington Post Writers Group editorial director: “We have plenty of references that support what George wrote, and we have others that dispute that. So we didn’t have enough to send in a correction.”

It seems as if the Washington Post just doesn’t think this is important. Via Jay Rosen I learned that Alexander’s inaugural ombudsman column today has nary a mention of the affair–even though Alexander himself made inquiries. Maybe Alexander just wanted to say “Hello, World,” in his first piece, without diving straight into any particular complaints. That’s fine. Let’s see what he writes about once the niceties are out of the way. (He invites email: ombudsman@washpost.com )

My own opinion is that this was a serious screw-up, but not an easy one to solve in any systemic way. In an ideal world, editorial pages would employ full-time fact-checkers who felt no fear in pointing out small and large errors of fact. Only after their objections had been satisfied would a column see the light of day. That’s what happens to articles at some magazines today.

In the real world, though, a lot of magazines don’t have fact-checkers on staff, and they expect writers to do the fact-checking themselves. It’s particularly tough for newspapers, which churn out so many stories a day. To fact-check those stories well, they’d have to hire back a fair amount of the people they’ve laid off in recent years. I assume the same probably goes for editorial pages, although I can’t say for sure, never having dealt with them myself.

Still, it remains seriously weird for a national newspaper to run a piece that they claim has been thoroughly fact-checked, which has since been showed to be plainly flawed. It’s also weird for it to then refuse to run a correction based on a bogus sense of balance about the evidence of how much ice there is in the world and what that means for climate change.

A lot of people have left comments here complaining about George Will. And others have then accused them (and me) of being part of a left-wing conspiracy, attacking Will while letting the inaccuracies of others slide by. For me this is not really about Will. It’s about how newspapers and magazines succeed or fail to convey science as accurately as possible. And this case is a textbook example of failure. I hope something is learned from it.

[Update, 2/22: I’ve added a new post addressing some confusion over some late-breaking news about the satellites that measure ice. And along the way, we are reminded of just how weak the multi-layered fact-checking at the Washington Post editorial page is.]

Comments (15)

  1. Having a bit of a journalism background, it’s easy to apply Riddell’s Law (“Any sufficiently developed incompetence is indistinguishable from conspiracy”) to understand why the factcheckers didn’t call Will on his gibberish. Even before the big newspaper layoffs, most factcheckers were and are interns or part-time wage slaves hopeful that they’d be hired if they just shut up, take the abuse, and continue to kiss editorial butt. The last thing you want to do, in that situation, is point out that one of the paper’s star columnists is full of garbage, especially if you can point out line and verse.

    Speaking as someone who faced a literal temper tantrum when an assistant editor discovered that I was getting more and better reviews of my articles than he was for his, I can tell you that nothing combines an ego big enough to produce tides and a skin too thin to be used for condoms than a newspaper columnist. This is especially true when the critic is a part-time employee within the columnist’s own organization, the columnist has an overarching sense of his own importance, and when the paper’s editors are too cowardly, lazy, or arrogant to tell their drinking buddy to rewrite or kill the column. That’s why nobody was willing to face Will’s wrath.

  2. Nicole

    I guess you can’t come out and say that they’re being weird, political and religious because that would invite backlash. You’re right to keep a cool head and go after the larger issue. The Washington Post is being weird, political and religious though. It’s creepy.

  3. It’s ok, at least in some cases, to state something as a persons opinion, but if that opinion is that the Earth is flat, journalists, who should consider it their highest duty not to mislead the public, should note that all scientists believe that it’s been conclusively proven not flat.

    Journalists do their duty shamefully when they print he said, she said, and never let the public know that objective scientists or experts overwhelmingly believe that he is wrong and have a mountain of evidence to prove it.

  4. ken melvin

    What credibility Will, Krauthammer, Kristol, Gingrich, Perle, Kagan, Hiatt, …, the lot? Why are they being thrust in our faces?

  5. Rickstersherpa

    Professor Brad Delong and Dean Baker in his “Beat the Press” blog have long pointed out the weird relationship that the Washington Post has developed with the truth and dealing with basic facts that don’t fit the world view of its editorial page and the large number of conservative writers who find a home there. Professor Delong speaks of it as the Washington Post death spiral.

  6. Mike M

    George Will said – “…the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979, when satellite record-keeping began. ” That’s … TRUE!

    As for: “.. there is as much sea ice today as there was in 1979. If there is “global” warming it certainly is hiding very well. Perhaps it has gone underground, either shy of all of the media attention, or nervous about being found out that it’s nothing more than a fraud. ”

    Okay, he got the year wrong, it should have been 1980 when there was 19.7E6 KM^2 in January; January 2009 was 19.9E6. For those of you from Rio Linda that is ONE PERCENT MORE global sea ice than 29 years ago!

    Human Caused Global Warming (AGW) Alarmism is a HUGE SCAM!

  7. James Saultz

    This kinda juvenile “gotchaism” is exactly why I don’t read trite little mags such as Discover any more. I would say Gotchaism journalism, but alas, it’s obvious there is no journalism to be found anywhere among today’s AGW fanatics. Just an intense desire to see dead humans…

  8. Teri

    I’m so glad someone finally said it!! Global warming is a huge scam!! HUGE SCAM!! Someone said, “Professor Brad Delong and Dean Baker in his “Beat the Press” blog have long pointed out the weird relationship that the the Washington Post has developed with the truth and dealing with basic facts that don’t fit the world view of its editorial page…” “world view of its editorial page”??? How about whether it’s true or not?! Not whether it’s a popular sentiment or not. Does the fact that there is carbon dioxide on Mars mean nothing to you people?? Hmmm…. last I heard, there were no humans on Mars.

  9. Michael

    Discover is just a SciAm wanna be so when SciAm went political and flushed science down the tubes, Discover went right after them

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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