Roundtable: How Fact-Checkers Bring Certainty to Uncertain Times

AP Photo/John Minchillo

A rare newsroom role can help journalism meet the moment

In the weeks after the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, protest movements erupted in cities around the country and the world. Suddenly, everyone was talking about racism — Google searches for the term peaked in June, at fourfold higher than any point in the past 15 years, including after similarly high-profile police killings, like the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray. The protests, and police responses to them, prompted a two-pronged reckoning in U.S. journalism: On one side were questions of office culture and politics: How are Black staffers, few as they are, treated in their  newsrooms? On the other were questions of craft and standards: How should we ethically and accurately report on police violence, protests against it, and racism more broadly? 

In a June New York Times op-ed, reporter Wesley Lowery called for journalists to use the standard of “moral clarity” as opposed to “neutral objectivity.” He wrote:

Neutral objectivity trips over itself to find ways to avoid telling the truth. Neutral objectivity insists we use clunky euphemisms like “officer-involved shooting.” Moral clarity, and a faithful adherence to grammar and syntax, would demand we use words that most precisely mean the thing we’re trying to communicate: “the police shot someone.”

One particular newsroom role is at the center of discussions around accuracy, fairness, and objectivity, but often gets left out of the equation: the fact-checker. It is precisely these questions of how grammar, syntax, and framing obfuscate or elucidate a truth, or versions of a truth, that a fact-checker considers in every assignment. For example, a fact-checker might uncover in her research that a statistic or a quote — on its face an apparently objective “fact” — is misleading or lacking in context. We reached out to a handful of journalists who fact-check or oversee fact-checking in their respective newsrooms, and what follows is a conversation among them about how fact-checkers navigate making tough calls about language, methodology, sourcing, and expertise.

Daniel Moattar is the research editor at Mother Jones and manages the Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program.

Ethan Corey is a senior fact-checker and researcher at The Appeal. 

Mariam Elba is the associate research editor at The Intercept, where she leads the fact-checking desk and conducts news research.  

Miguel Salazar is the research director at The Nation, where he manages the publication's fact-checking department and editorial internship program.

Naomi Gordon-Loebl is a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at Type Media Center. Formerly, she was the research editor and internship director at The Nation.

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Maha Ahmed: Has the recent reckoning in journalism changed how you view the role of a fact-checker in your newsroom or in the industry at large?

Naomi Gordon-Loebl: It's been powerful and encouraging to see the rest of the industry begin to reckon with something that many folks who work in fact-checking are aware of, which is that ... maybe, instead of “objectivity,” journalists should be striving for accuracy.

Mariam Elba: It highlights a more urgent need for fact-checkers to really look out for language that might obfuscate details that we in fact do know and have sufficient evidence for. If we see the phrase “officer-involved shooting” in a story about Mike Brown, for example, it’s technically correct, but does it say everything the public needs to know about the story? How was the officer involved in the shooting? I think as fact-checkers, we should be looking at how the article as a whole tells a story (and a true story!) and not just check off that various facts are correct.

Ahmed: There are the more minute aspects of fact-checking, like making sure small details are correct. But one of the more valuable perspectives a fact-checker brings to a story is a kind of professional skepticism that allows them to be critical of the premises of a piece of reporting, and this is where questions of objectivity can really come into play.

In mainstream journalism, there’s an assumption that “both sides” of an issue must get equal time and attention in an article. In my experience as a fact-checker, that standard can sometimes get in the way of giving readers an accurate picture of an issue or event.

Elba: This came up for me a couple of years ago as the chemical attacks in Syria were happening in 2017 and 2018. There’s a need to look at “both sides”: those who say the attacks happened as people on the ground say they happened, and the skeptics. In news events like this, a horrific war crime, one can feed into racist and orientalist narratives by giving the skeptics the mic in your story, even after the evidence that the skeptics put forth has been disproven. I would push back when I see this kind of thing play out. Because as a whole, even if all the facts in the story are indeed accurate, is the story telling the truth of what happened?

Ahmed: Ethan, I know you in particular fact-check primarily criminal justice reporting, which tends to rely heavily on statistics, including crime statistics. Could you talk a bit about how you approach those?

Ethan Corey: Criminal justice statistics are always among the most challenging facts to check, because those statistics so often encode the racial and socioeconomic biases at the heart of our criminal-legal system itself. For instance, “recidivism” stats, which supposedly measure how frequently certain groups commit new crimes after they're released from jail or prison are actually rearrest or reconviction stats. They measure how frequently people are arrested or convicted for new crimes, not how often they actually commit those crimes. Thus, because certain groups are more likely to be targeted by police and prosecutors, their recidivism stats are higher than groups that aren't targeted in the same way.

Ahmed: Right, in reporting on systems that are already biased, you have to keep in mind how those biases infiltrate apparently objective facts that come out of those systems. One of the things I feel has been highlighted over the last few months especially, but which fact-checkers have always sort of known, is that institutional sources, like police departments or government agencies, may not be the most reliable sources.

Elba: You can see this in some of The Intercept’s recent stories on the BlueLeaks documents. Law enforcement, fusion centers across the country, and national agencies like the FBI have pretty shoddy intelligence-gathering that suggest a deep disconnect with societal rifts, racism, and inequality. We just checked a story on police misconduct from the Bronx and the data that was coming from the city was incredibly difficult to decipher. It’s really hard to rely on certain agencies for accuracy in this way.

Daniel Moattar: [Mother Jones] ran a feature last issue on Oakland's Ceasefire program, which at least on paper is a joint effort between the Oakland Police Department and Oakland residents to reduce violence. I thought there was a clear underlying premise — policing is reformable, whether or not this program is doing it effectively — that we could present, but had to interrogate explicitly. Because what we're saying by commissioning the story at all is that police-based community safety efforts are worth discussing on a practical level. And that meant bringing in more sources, conducting more interviews, adding more evidence, taking a lot of stands on a paragraph-by-paragraph level about whether we had a fair range of perspectives.

If you're running a story on whether traffic lights are effective in reducing car accidents, for example, you can do the simple version, where you take cars and the amount of traffic for granted; you can also write the deeper version, where you situate more and more of it in society, in history. Who built the roads? For whose benefit? Is whatever mitigating measure we're looking at just a bandaid? You don't always want to do that version of the story, but that's where the fact-checker comes in, striking that balance.

That's what I always find myself debating with editors and writers: How much have we assumed here, and who will those assumptions be clear to? Will they reveal our implicit biases?

Miguel Salazar: At The Nation, we sometimes publish articles that counter the mainstream narrative on a host of issues, and those can (whether intentionally or not) sometimes use a set of narrow facts to push a specific narrative while omitting information that would provide a reader with a fuller and more accurate picture of an issue. I've noticed that this often happens in international reporting on countries like Venezuela, Russia, and Syria, in which our fact-checkers have to gauge the reliability of government sources and on-the-ground reporting by outlets that may also have their own political agendas, whether it's the New York Times, RT, or TeleSur.

Gordon-Loebl: I definitely think — and Maha, your earlier question sort of referenced this — that part of a fact-checker's job is not just to check whether all the individual facts are correct, but also whether the underlying premise of the story is accurate and fair — whether not just the trees, but the forest itself, is accurate, in other words. Of course, it's also important for reporters and editors to think that way about their stories, too!

Corey: A challenge I often face is that even if it's 100% obvious that police or other government officials are presenting an entirely false set of facts, their narrative still needs to be shared, because the fact that the government is lying is newsworthy in itself. But their words still carry an implicit authority [and] credibility that makes it tricky to balance letting them get their version of events in with staying focused on the meat of the story itself. Like, do you give the police three grafs to lie about (for example) the circumstances surrounding a police shooting of an unarmed civilian, then spend another three grafs explaining why their narrative is total crap?

Salazar: Naomi and Ethan both make great points. Fact-checkers are working off text that is provided to them by writers and editors, and our work is constrained in that sense. How a lot of this information is provided largely depends on the judgment of other members of editorial staffs, and this could be a case for having fact-checkers more involved with stories earlier on in the publishing process. Traditional editorial processes don't always allow time and space for these kinds of conversations to happen on a regular basis.

Elba: As fact-checkers, we get a near-final draft of the story to check. Which means that the reporter and editor have already discussed what to include and not include.

Gordon-Loebl: And who to interview, which is such a crucial ingredient in this conversation. It's not uncommon, I think, for a fact-checker to encounter a source in the fact-check process who the reporter should have interviewed, and didn't. But it is usually way too late for that to change. And as we know, the choice about who gets interviewed for a story is a very political one, and one which can really impact the facts of the piece.

Elba: Because (as we all know well here) many newsrooms don’t have staff fact-checkers (and if they do, there likely aren’t many), it’s hard to advocate that fact-checking is an essential part of the news production process. Because things that reporters overlook could easily be amended early on.

Moattar: On a practical level, a fact-checker's mandate is usually, “make this publishable for us,” “insulate us from risk,” etc. “Add rigor” is something outlets like to say their checkers [and] researchers do, and we do manage to do that, but rigor isn't supposed to be something you add, it's supposed to be something you build in from the start.

Ahmed: I personally think pretty much every piece of journalism would be improved if fact-checkers were treated as an editorial equal to the editor or reporter rather than an afterthought.

Moattar: There's a job that doesn't exactly exist, but I think a lot of us have carved out imperfectly: something like a methods and practices editor, or a reporting supervisor. The closest I've seen is editorial director for newsroom standards, which can sort of include that in the ambit. Making sure everything is methodologically solid is actually incredibly political, for all the reasons we've outlined here, and you need to do it from a position of authority in the newsroom — which, in general, is not the fact-checker's position. You can burn a lot of institutional capital fighting those fights.

Ahmed: How do you approach fact-checking details that are particular to a writer's experience in the world? In other words, when, if ever, is it okay for a reporter to say, “This is my experience, and I have no documents or external sources to back it up.” If someone is writing about their own community, for example.

Corey: At The Appeal, we sometimes publish work by incarcerated writers, which, while important, presents a huge challenge for fact-checking. Not only is it often nigh impossible to communicate directly with the writer, [but also] they often have observations about the conditions of their incarceration that simply aren't possible to corroborate unless you're there to see it for yourself. If I demanded the same level of supporting evidence for those observations as I would for a professional reporter, their observations might never see the light of day. But at the same time, it would be a disservice to readers to present those observations as if they had gone through the same level of scrutiny as traditional reporting. I try to thread this needle by suggesting language that helps distinguish between first-person observations and independently checkable facts; I think as long as it's clear to the reader where the details came from, it's okay to let people narrate their own experiences.

Elba: Great point, Ethan. Whether it’s an incarcerated person, someone writing about their community, or a news event they were part of, a protest they attended, or something else that they witnessed that was newsworthy, [if] they are clearly framing it as their own experience, I don’t push back. If it adds an important piece to telling a broader story, we can’t get caught up on fact-checking their experience.

Ahmed: One thing I will say is that while I think it's important to respect people's experiences, I've also learned that people are not always the best sources of their own facts. Recall and memory can be fuzzy for so many different reasons, including PTSD if the anecdote in question is related to abuse or violence.

Gordon-Loebl: Yes, totally. We once ran a story in which someone who was herself incarcerated discussed charges that had been filed against a man who had sexually assaulted her (and who the story named). The narrative of what had happened to her, we left in her own words — but we checked the legal charges against court documents, and it was important that we did, because the charges she named were very different from the actual ones he'd been convicted of. 

Maha makes a really good point. PTSD, time passed, lack of access to documentation, etc., can all mean that people are not necessarily the best sources of certain specific details that relate to their own stories. It was important that we protect both her and ourselves in cross-checking the specifics of those charges. If we had run them in her words, we would've been incredibly vulnerable to a libel case. 

At the same time, of course, it's really important to balance the need for accuracy (and protection from lawsuits) with the need to respect people's agency and expertise on their own lives.

Moattar: The first question for me: what are the stakes? Are we just saying how the reporter felt about something they saw, without huge implications for the story? Do we lose something—e.g., do we have to leave out other valuable info because it would conflict with the writer's take—or do we gain something, namely new info about their life and experiences?

Or are we using the anecdote to level an accusation, adducing it to the deeper points the article makes (especially about a systemic injustice), or revealing something about the writer that really complicates the piece and how a reader will read it? That's more complicated, and like Ethan says, often comes up in criminal justice reporting—especially by incarcerated people. They might say the prison is unjust, mention documented bad stuff about it, and then make some kind of actionable claim about mistreatment there. Is the other evidence, the documented bad stuff, making their anecdotal claim look more true by association? And are we co-signing that? Those are tough case-by-case calls.

Ahmed: Those are all really great points, Daniel. I've been in situations where it's become clear through the fact-checking process that a reporter is particularly sympathetic to their main source, like a whistleblower. This can come up a lot when your outlet or organization does reporting that challenges power or demands accountability. The sympathy a reporter has can get in the way of them evaluating a source's claims fairly. That's happened to me a couple of times.

There's one experience that really sticks with me. There was a piece revolving around a whistleblower's claims that they'd been retaliated against for blowing the whistle. On its face, that's a kind of story that a lot of journalists who are interested in accountability journalism would love to tell and is obviously a good one to tell. But it became clear to me, as the fact-checker, that the whistleblower wasn't giving a full picture of what comprised the alleged retaliation, and because the reporter was (understandably) sympathetic to the plight of the whistleblower, they had let it slide. Because of that, I've learned to be skeptical even of so-called “friendly” sources. One thing I tell the fact-checkers I train is that every source has their own agenda, even the ones you like.

Corey: Absolutely! I sometimes find it easier to fact-check stories that run counter to my own biases, because it takes far less effort to be skeptical about the writer's claims. When the narrative tends to confirm what I already believe, on the other hand, I have to force myself to question my own biases, along with the writer's claims.

Moattar: It's funny to say out loud, but even the good journalistic clichés—“speak truth to power,” “afflict the comfortable”—come with ideological baggage and can drive selective vision. (Sometimes you want your scoop to be a scoop so much that you overlook things.) We've just coded it as good baggage! It's not actually a more or less objective angle than “Let the people in power lie, it's for the best.” It's better values, but because of the push towards objectivity, we've disguised values as reporting methods, techniques, skills, etc. 

Gordon-Loebl: And I've noticed that sometimes the reporters who are least willing to hear this are also the ones who (surprise) are the least willing to hear feedback from fact-checkers that they might not have gotten it right. We could have a whole other roundtable on the atrocious ways that reporters sometimes treat fact-checkers, who are providing an incredibly valuable service to the writer, usually for little credit and often not-great pay.

Salazar: I think that also gets at the structures that have more or less set in stone what we consider to be “truth.” Many of the rules and principles that have shaped journalism and which are considered the touchstones of our profession are products of a specific ecosystem which was more or less dominated by white men. The recent reckoning in media isn't just about newsroom composition but also about how these understandings of journalism and fact are shaping the way we see the world. It's pretty clear that they need to be updated!

About the reporter

Maha Ahmed

Maha Ahmed

Maha Ahmed is chief of research at Type Investigations.

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