Suddenly, Fact-Checkers Who’ve Toiled in Journalistic Obscurity Are Trendy

Credibility is so hot.

“Fact” is a real buzzword these days. Ever since a remorseful Ira Glass retracted a This American Life episode about Sinclair-esque working conditions in Chinese Apple factories last week, after it was revealed that Mike Daisey fabricated parts of his visit to said factories, we’ve been collectively scourging the breach of ethics, and fretting over the issue of credibility. Who can be trusted?

As Philly Mag’s research editor, I spend my days overseeing our magazine’s fact-checking operations, and thus have dog ears for fact-related stories like this. But long before the Daisey debacle took center stage, my ears had been twitching.

They perked up earlier this month, when W.W. Norton & Company released a new, buzzy book called The Lifespan of a Fact, which details “non-fiction” essayist John D’Agata’s seven-year correspondence with beleaguered fact-checker/creative cock-block Jim Fingal. Months before that, back when Michele Bachmann was still pontificating about the toxicity of HPV vaccines, news outlets from the Washington Post to the Times began running GOP campaign “fact-checks.” And even before that, Bill Murray (Bill Murray!) guest starred in a spoofy video from Funnyordie.com about a magazine’s Fact-Checking Unit.

Endorsements don’t ring much louder than that. Fact-checking is trendy. It is, as one co-worker put it, “hip to be accurate.”

Of course, I’ve known this all along, and a former Philly Mag fact-checker with whom I recently commiserated agreed: “It’s the sexiest job in journalism.”

Well, fine, maybe that’s pushing it. We don’t quite have the glitz of high-brow fashion editors, or the hard-earned respect of investigative true crime reporters, but I think that fact-checking is at a moment where its very nerdiness, its association with old-school, long-form, print journalism has given it a nostalgic mystique.

But this consciousness of facts and their pre-publication scrutiny goes beyond trendiness. What Mike Daisey has pulled into the limelight is a certain national anxiety over what we’re reading, and where it’s coming from. An infogluttonous public is juggling more digital news and commentary than ever before, practically all of which falls only to public surveillance for fact-checking. It’s no wonder that so many news outlets are running “fact-checks,” and sites like Factcheck.org—a darling of Penn’s Public Policy school—have picked up so much steam in the last few years.

I talked with Philly Post contributor and former Philly Mag research editor Rich Rys, who’s also noticed the trend: “You’re starting to see it leak out into the mainstream more … it’s becoming a way to set yourself apart from the stereotype of a blogger sitting at home in his basement. You’re automatically implying that we’ve taken this a step beyond most of what you’re reading out there in cyberspace.”

This is music to the ears of fact-checkers waiting for their moment in the spotlight. Within the media world, fact-checkers are typically paid their due respect—while the process can be excruciating, even antagonistic, most writers and editors appreciate fact-checkers for the balance they bring stories, and for ensuring the accuracy that protects credibility. But formal fact-checking, as one Philly Mag writer pointed out to me, was put into practice mainly out of concern over legal liability; its painstaking, born-of-necessity nature can make the process feel more like dental work than editing.

To really love fact-checking, you must first cling fast to the truism that the best journalism is balanced, honest and free of misspelled proper nouns. You also have to relish in the quiet victory that comes with confirming a fact.

When I was learning the fact-checking ropes at Philly Mag as an intern in 2009, it was this adrenaline that glorified the process for me. Every tussle I got into with a source (“Wait! Don’t hang up, Mr. Starr! There is chile powder in the marinara? Hello?”) was whitewashed by the tactile satisfaction of making that authoritative checkmark over the copy. And catching a mistake? That was really time for self-congratulating. (“A lowercase ‘b’ in ‘DiBruno’?! Sigh. What would these people do without me?”)

Since becoming research editor, my position has gotten a bit more precarious. As the stories I’m checking have gotten more complicated, the questions aren’t as black and white, and the line dividing fact and opinion is much more elusive. I’ve had to ask powerful politicians about their prison sentences, high-strung yoga instructors about their income, and controversial bloggers about their homoerotic porn careers. Most unnerving of all, sometimes, I have to politely tell respected colleagues—some very seasoned journalists—that I have tried several Google searches for this statistic and am still not finding anything, so I’d really appreciate the primary source, thanks.

Still, I’m lucky to work with conscientious writers. This may not earn me any praise, but if any of Philly Mag’s writers told me they were outside an Apple factory in China and that the guards were holding guns, then those guards had guns. Check.

I live and breathe paranoia over the accuracy of the stories we print. Mike Daisey’s story rattled me because it was salient reminder that even the most widely read, touted stories are ultimately reported, edited and fact-checked by mere mortals. But even though I shuddered along with the rest of the media world, I also feel strangely validated by the scandal. What we can take away from this episode is that even today, in 2012, readers still want stories that draw power from honesty and temperance. We can rest a little easier knowing that even as the industry around us buckles, the oft-toed line between truth and speculation does, in fact, still exist, and that someone out there is still taking the time to draw it.

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