Fact Checking the Fact Checkers

Posted on Monday, June 25, 2018 at 10:20 PM

A recent case study in fact checking gone wrong.

By William Dunkerley

The fact-checking failures of other publications can hurt us all. That connection may seem tenuous at first. So let me explain.

Professionally produced publications are in competition every day with various forms of free or nominally priced information online. I'm talking about blogs, advertiser- and other advocacy-produced content, and online publications that do not adhere to rigorous editorial standards. Some of this content is even more readily available than that produced by those of us who are professional editors. With the plethora of searchable online information, some observers even question the relevance of the kind of curated content that we provide.

So why should readers pick us?

One thing that makes us stand out is our reliability and focus on reader needs and interests. Fact checking is an important component of that. Our adherence to editorial standards allows readers to rely upon the content that we offer as being accurate and without hidden agenda. That gives us a leg up.

If we lose that advantage, we fail in our competition with the other online sources.

Unfortunately there have been a number of notable fact-checking failures:

--In 2011, when Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot during a public presentation, some outlets reported erroneously that she had been killed.

--In 2012, sports figure Manti Te'o played up the death of his girlfriend. This news was carried by many publications. But then it came out that the girlfriend never existed. Advertising Age magazine's publishing director, David S. Klein, called the fiasco "a massive failure of reporting." He was astonished that "not one editor at any of the major national sports-news outlets insisted on even the most basic fact checking."

--More recently, on May 29, 2018, there was widespread reporting on the murder in Ukraine of a dissident Russian journalist. According to the New York Times, "Arkady Babchenko, Russian Journalist, Shot and Killed in Kiev." Haaretz reported, "Babchenko was found shot in his home. He went into exile in 2017 after being warned that the government was angry with him."

There was only one problem here. Someone discovered on the same day this murder story broke that journalist Arkady Babchenko was actually alive and well.

The news of his murder was fake news disseminated by the Ukrainian government. When caught, it quickly tried to cover up its hoax. It came up with what sounds like a whopper of an explanation: They tried to tell us that the Babchenko hoax was all part of a plan to entrap some Russian hitman. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn't. Who knows. But those publications and broadcast outlets caught spreading the hoax now have put their credibility in question.

This fake news reportage generally insinuated a sinister Russian connection to the "murder." So it was interesting how the official Russian news agency TASS handled the story. They apparently didn't fact check whether Ukrainian claims of a murder were accurate either. TASS reported, "Russia demands that the Ukrainian authorities do everything in their power to ensure a prompt investigation of the murder of the Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko."

CNN was prominent in its coverage of the murder that wasn't. It ran a story titled "Russian Journalist Babchenko, Critic of Kremlin, Shot Dead in Ukraine." The network promptly corrected its story as word got out about the hoax. But we asked a number of questions of CNN about its initial handling of the story:

EO: Was the allegation of Babchenko's murder fact checked with multiple sources?

CNN: No comment.

EO: Your story references the Ukrainian state news agency Ukrinform as a source. Did you have other sources? If so, without breaching any confidentiality, can you tell us who were the other sources?

CNN: No comment.

EO: According to your reporting Ukrinform claimed not to be a primary source regarding Babchenko's alleged murder, and cited Ayder Muzhdabaev as their source. Did you contact Muzhdabaev to verify Ukrinform's alleged quote? Did you know Muzhdabaev to be a reliable source?

CNN: No comment.

EO: Why did you not report the murder as an alleged murder?

CNN: No comment.

EO: Your headline includes the phrase "critic of Kremlin." But your story does not give any factual basis for that being of headline significance. Why did you choose to include that phrase?

CNN: No comment.

EO: Your correction about the murder reports, "It was revealed that his death was staged by Ukranian [sic] security services." Your follow-on story, "'Murdered' Russian Journalist Arkady Babchenko Turns Up Alive," seems to attribute that revelation to "The Security Service of Ukraine." But wasn't that the organization that already had admitted to fabricating the story of the murder in the first place? In light of that, why would you subsequently accord credibility to that organization's self-serving account after their fabrication was discovered?

CNN: No comment.

EO: Are the fact-checking practices and degree of adherence to generally accepted journalistic standards that you applied to this story the norm at CNN? If not, in what way did this story deviate from your norm?

CNN: No comment.

We told CNN that we'd value including their side of the story, but they declined our offer.

Here's the takeaway: Whether you're editing a national newspaper or a narrowly focused B2B magazine, you are in competition with alternative online sources of information. In this competitive situation your editorial integrity can be the thing that will attract readers to you and establish a bond of loyalty. Fact checking is an essential element in delivering reliable content.

Be sure to fact check!

If you see colleagues at other publications committing fact-checking failures, call them out on that. Our collective reputation as providers of trustworthy content is at stake. The sins of others can impact our whole industry. They can leave readers and potential readers to find little to differentiate professionally curated and edited content from the mass of online offerings.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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Comment:

"Fact-checking responsibility extends to checking accuracy of content in articles you post that are picked up from other media. For B2B publications running product information, you must have a policy covering how you will handle claims of superiority or exclusivity contained in PR announcements." --Howard Rauch, Editorial Solutions, Inc., www.editsol.com

Titles to Inspire Ideas

Posted on Monday, June 25, 2018 at 10:20 PM

Five titles from a section of one bookshelf to generate ideas.

By Peter P. Jacobi

I was sitting at my computer keyboard, having just finished writing a review. Outside my faced window, there was sunlight, one of the few occasions of brightness in several gloomy-for-April weeks. I chanced to look to the side at a shelf of books and, in perusing a sliver of it, noticed several titles that stirred thought.

Stirred the sort of thought perhaps useful for another of these monthly columns of mine for Editors Only, which would be the 267th, if my listing is correct. My thinking then blotted out the word "perhaps," and so I am here, still at the keyboard, ready to pursue the topic of what titles alone can conjure to help me, to help you as writer and editor, regardless of what's between the covers.

Build On an Idea

To the far left of the sliver of shelf, I spotted Russell Baker's There's a Country in My Cellar, a rich treasury of his New York Times columns, 120 of them, of which I have read many over the years. Since this column is about titles, I have not reopened the volume to look for details but remain wedded to the utility of titles in providing us with ideas.

Ideas are the capital of our journalistic lives. Without them, there is nothing to be published. We're always on the hunt for them. We have to be. And I pondered columnist Baker churning out column after column for decades, each one built on an idea. He was miraculously successful at the task and seemed to have made of each one come upon as an opportunity. Here he was with a book that told us there is a country -- think of it -- of stories gathered in his cellar, a number of which may well have originated from something he found in his own basement. Meaning, of course, that there are ideas available to us in every corner, atop every building, in branches of trees and gardens of flowers, along city streets, in newspaper headlines, in what you hear people talk about while dining out or shopping for groceries, in books you house on home library shelves. Just be aware of them, right there, right everywhere.

Entice Your Reader

I find again on that sliver of shelving Arthur Plotnik's Spunk & Bite: A Writer's Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language & Style. It was inspired, of course, by the Strunk and White classic, The Elements of Style.

Plotnik's title is a reminder of the scope of competition, all the newfangled ways writers gain audience attention, whether through reading or listening or watching. Yes, we must remember issues of accuracy and brevity and clarity that Elements stressed; they remain the foundation of journalistic skills and practices. But spunk is important. Bite is important. We have to find ways of enticing, then holding on to, our readers/listeners/watchers. And yes, we may have pictures and motion and music and all such aids available, but in the beginning there was the word. And it remains our beginning. Our center and ending, too!

Whole Story of Sentences

Spellbinding Sentences: A Writer's Guide to Achieving Excellence and Captivating Readers, by Barbara Baig, starts with that basic in writing, the sentence. She discusses all the different ways we can improve that set of words ending in a period, or perhaps question mark or exclamation point. I remember reading the book. It is thorough.

But as I write this column and ponder the title, I'm thinking beyond. The sentence, brilliant though it be, by itself, alone, is an island, lonely. There must be a way to get there and a way to leave. The environment in which that sentence exists cannot be a vacuum. That reality gets us into context, into order, into continuity, into flow. The sentence(s) that lead into the spellbinding one we started with have to get the reader there. They must be just as brilliantly conceived and crafted, lest the reader never get to the showcased one in our discussion. And so, too, must the sentences fashioned for the departure.

A sentence is only as useful, as spellbinding, as the ones that surround it. We must deal, each time we sit down to write or edit, with a whole story of sentences. They require knitting.

Sense of Style

Steven Pinker recently published a book on The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century!. Style is a vague term that can mean following a style guide or writing prose with a certain grace. It can be synonymous with voice, expressing another complicated, vaporous sort of matter, an essence that pervades our copy and makes it ours.

Voice means most anything you want the word to mean, but one thinks first of the writer's way with words, the writer's ability to bring a personality, his or her personality, into the copy. Flair comes to mind. Authority comes to mind. Individuality comes to mind. The "you" in your writing comes to mind.

Readers recognize an author by his or her "sense of style," by the presence of a found voice. Readers like to recognize and visit that sense of style, that voice, that distinctive personality, that individuality. It becomes something to appreciate: to have the writing being read offer a distinctive flavor.

On top of that, on top of being able to cast a verbal glow on the whole of a story, there's the necessity -- when you're writing about people or an institution or a place or nonhuman creatures -- of capturing the voice of your subject so that subject's being is revealed and celebrated.

Writers need to work hard to capture the sense of style Mr. Pinker writes about. Editors, looking at the writer's copy from a distance, can be of valuable assistance.

Just Write!

Now Write! Nonfiction: Memoir, Journalism, and Creative Nonfiction Exercises from Today's Best Writers and Teachers, edited by Sherry Ellis, gets right to my own frequent problem, one I believe is shared by a multitude of brethren.

I can spend endless time getting ready to write: thinking, planning, gathering information, and thinking and planning some more until the deadline looms dangerously. When I wrote my book on magazine writing, I had an 18-month period to complete it. I did all that thinking and planning and gathering information stuff all the way until I had 28 days left. That meant two days to complete each of the 14 chapters.

And how did I handle each two-day set? I spent the first choosing the material to be used and ordering it. And then, on day two, I wrote.

I counsel others not to do this. But that I do unveils a weakness in my makeup. I actually love to write, but my early years in journalism were often devoted to writing hourly five-minute radio news shows for ABC and NBC. Every day, deadlines mercilessly kept on coming. I guess that reality shifted into the practice of delay in more recent times, as I bathe in the comfort of looser, longer cutoffs. As for you, remember, short deadlines or long, all the delicious prewriting activity means nothing until words follow on paper or screen.

So, there you have it: five titles from a section of one bookshelf. From each: an idea. I encourage you to engage in similar inspections of your collection, one of so many ways to generate ideas.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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The Fog Index

Posted on Monday, June 25, 2018 at 10:20 PM

Assessing the readability of an NYTimes.com excerpt.

This month's Fog Index text comes from a June 23 NYTimes.com article ("Amazon, the Brand Buster" by Julie Creswell). Here's the sample text, with longer words italicized:

"On the surface, the move into the private label business (in which goods are sold under the retailer's name rather than that of an outside vendor) appears to be a deft move by Amazon. Analysts predict that nearly half of all online shopping in the United States will be conducted on Amazon's platform in the next couple of years. That creates a massive opportunity for Amazon to more than double revenue from its in-house brands to $25 billion in the next four years, according to analysts at SunTrust Robinson Humphrey. That's the equivalent of all of Macy's revenue last year."

Word count: 100 words
Average sentence length: 25 words (34, 25, 31, 10)
Words with 3+ syllables: 8 percent (8/100 words)
Fog Index: (25+8) *.4 = 13 (13.2, no rounding)

This sample weighs in at 100 words, the ideal length for a Fog sample. What isn't ideal is the Fog Index, which is slightly elevated at 13.2 (Remember, we want a text sample's score to be below 12.) Let's try some edits to cut 2 points from the score:

"On the surface, Amazon's move into the private label business (in which goods are sold under the retailer's name rather than that of an outside vendor) appears to be a deft one. Analysts predict that nearly half of all online shopping in the United States will happen on Amazon's platform in the next couple of years. That gives Amazon a chance to more than double in-house brand revenue to $25 billion in the next four years, analysts at SunTrust Robinson Humphrey claim. That's equal to of all of Macy's revenue last year."

Word count: 92 words
Average sentence length: 23 words (32, 24, 26, 10)
Words with 3+ syllables: 5 percent (5/92 words)
Fog Index: (23+5) *.4 = 11 (11.2, no rounding)


For this edit, we focused on tightening up the text. Our overall word count shrank by 8 percent, which shaved 2 points from the average sentence length. We also were able to cut the percentage of longer words from 8 to 5. As a result, we cut the Fog Index by exactly 2 points, enough to get us below 12.

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Facebook Tries Print Publishing

Posted on Monday, June 25, 2018 at 10:20 PM

In the news: Facebook is trying its hand at print publishing.

Facebook has launched a quarterly print magazine. Grow is geared toward business executives in the UK, but further details are scarce. Piet van Niekerk of FIPP.com writes, "Financing the magazine, the print-run, distribution policy, target audience and future editorial themes seem to be a tightly guarded secret. When approached to shed more light, editor-in-chief Kate Maxwell, former group editorial director at Soho House & Co, said Facebook's 'comms team ... need to approve this (information).' They did not." In addition to the print edition, Facebook is also offering a digital version.

Reviews of the maiden issue, which focuses on niche brands, are mixed. In Van Niekerk's estimation, "While some of the editorial content in Grow is interesting ... some features seem to be insignificant.... Even the cover story lacks form and focus, although the photography is excellent (and looks rather costly)." What's more, Grow shares a name with a popular cannabis horticulture magazine, which is sure to cause brand confusion. Read Van Nieker's full piece here.

Also Notable:

Time's Drone Cover

Last month, Time partnered with Intel to create a "Drone Age" cover display using drones. Marco Margaritoff of TheDrive.com sums up the process in a June 1 article: "Using 958 Intel Shooting Star drones, the tech company orchestrated a synchronized, color-coded, unmanned aerial display resembling the world-famous magazine's masthead in the California sky.... [Intel] deployed this massive fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles above Folsom, California to create an animated 328-foot aerial version of the magazine's cover aesthetic." Read more about the innovative design and see a YouTube video of the launch here.

Daily Audience Growth at New York Media

This year has been good for New York Media in terms of audience group. The publisher -- which owns New York magazine and websites NYMag.com, Vulture, The Cut, Grub Street, Select All, and The Strategist -- has seen a 42 percent jump in median daily readers, according to Max Willens of Digiday.com. Their online content has reached 53 million unique visitors. According to Willens, at least part of this success can be attributed to New York Media's reduced focus on Facebook and its revitalized focus on SEO. Read more here.

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