A Checkered Present
Where have all the fact checkers gone? With a little chop here and little trim there Canadian magazines may be cutting away their credibility
Something just didn’t look right. Veronica Cusack, then chief of research for Toronto Life magazine, pored over a research document for the story she was checking. The writer had accused an organization of falsely claiming to be a registered charity. A strong declaration. Proof? A photocopy of a government form with a number on it. Since the organization was not a charity, no number should have been filled in, yet there it was in black ink. “But when I looked at the photocopy,” Cusack said, “the type of the number on that line was totally different than the type on the rest of the form. It looked very strange.” It bothered her enough to go down to the government office to have a look at the original document. The difference of the type was even more apparent on the original. When she asked a government official about the number, he said, “Oh that’s just the stamp that gives each form a number when it comes through the office.” The office stamp had randomly landed on this very important area.
When Cusack returned to the offices of Toronto Life she sat down with the editor and the writer to go over changes to the story. She told the writer about the mistaken number. “I was fully expecting her to say, ‘Oh my goodness, what a silly mistake.’ Instead, the writer said, ‘No, what I’m saying is that there is a number on that line, and they are not a charity. Let the reader take whatever they can from that.'” Cusack was stunned, since the writer was reputed to be a crackerjack investigative journalist. “She wanted to give the absolute fact, the fact that there is a number on that line. But the implication, what the reader would infer, was completely wrong.” Cusack held her ground and finally, under strong protest from the writer, the section was removed from the story.
Fact checking certainly doesn’t always expose such crucial mistakes. Indeed, since its inception 71 years ago at The New Yorker, fact checking has drawn both praise and ridicule: criticized as pedantic and picayune, exalted for preserving many a magazine’s reputation and for saving many a writer’s bacon.
Magazines have always distinguished themselves from the rest of the media as being more evaluative, more thoughtful. Even critics of fact checking can’t dispute that it helps ensure accuracy. Increasingly, though, many magazines across the continent seem less willing to dish out the dollars to make sure what they publish is right.
Undoubtedly, dollars are more scarce. The recession of the early ’90s tore through magazine editorial departments across the country, tossing out editors, writers and researchers. But the destruction wasn’t haphazard. Cuts often started at the bottom, where the fact checkers live.
Like all things Canadian, the shift away from fact checking-a historically undervalued institution-has been subtle. Newsmagazines have telescoped their production schedules in an attempt to be more current, which leaves less time to properly fact check the copy. And many general-interest magazines now rely on interns, generally unpaid or poorly paid, and the small and slowly depleting pool of experienced freelance researchers. It’s difficult to assess the exact extent of the damage, but damage there is. At most magazines the fact checking bill is rolled into the freelance or production budget along with copy editing, page production and research. And staff checkers often have more than one duty. But it is clear that fact checking is allotted less time than it was a decade ago and is becoming less an integral part of the everyday operation of the general-interest magazine-despite an increasingly litigious environment and a public justifiably suspicious of journalism.
Small wonder they’re suspicious. Last year several high-profile American journalists were exposed for bogus journalism: Patricia Smith of The Boston Globe for fabricating sources; two CNN producers for airing information without verifying its authenticity; and the now-infamous Steven Glass for his spectacular deception. The formerNew Republic starstaffer made up part or all of 27 stories before he was caught, sending other magazines he’d written for-George, Rolling Stone, Harper’s and Policy Review-scrambling to recheck or perhaps properly check his articles. Most recently a prize-winning British documentary on heroin smuggling aired on the CBS show 60 Minutes, was denounced as a complete fake.
Despite all this, many U.S. magazines are drastically cutting back on fact checking staff-and expecting reporters to verify their own stories. The 1997 July/August issue of the Columbia Journalism Review reported that Newsweek, Time and Fortune have virtually eliminated the practice, and Vogue as well as the Village Voice are “relaxing standards, relying more on ‘author checks,’ or leaving large amounts of copy unchecked.”
Cuts to fact checking staff at Canadian magazines haven’t been quite so drastic. Still, they are fraying the fabric of a critical element of magazine reporting. In 1989, Canadian Business was a monthly magazine with five full-time fact checkers. Now it publishes twice monthly-each issue is slightly smaller but that still means editorial copy has nearly doubled-and as of late February, employs three part-time checkers. Pat Ireland, who has been fact checking and copy editing since the mid-1960s, almost quit because of this shift.
In September 1997, when CB first doubled its production schedule, checkers were told to only verify titles, dates and company names. “They had this really stupid idea,” Ireland says. “The editors would supposedly go over what needed checking and they’d mark it for you. Well, they never did, and editors, in my experience, don’t have any idea of what should be checked. You check everything. You never know what you’re leaving out.” The new system, which resembled copy editing more than fact checking, didn’t work. Within weeks Ireland and the other researchers reverted to the old system of checking as many facts as they could, in descending order of importance, in the time they had.
But the time they have has been significantly reduced. Before CB went twice monthly in September 1997, Ireland would have three or four days to check a major story. Now she has one. Jasmine Miller, who left the managing editor job in March, said before she left, the days of checking every single fact, like whether or not the subject of a story owns a blue-and-white seersucker suit, are over: “We just don’t have time for that anymore.” In spite of this reduction, checkers are still held responsible for any errors that make it into the magazine.
Maclean Hunter Publishing Ltd., CB’s parent, tried implementing the same type of cursory check in 1992 atMaclean’s. Checkers were told to “light check” the most experienced writers, the assumption being that only inexperienced writers make mistakes. “They wanted to speed up the process with fewer people on the staff,” says Julie Cazzin, who’s been a staff researcher at Maclean’s for nine years. The experiment was scrapped: writers were spending too much time checking their own stories and the checkers like Cazzin didn’t feel confident with the process.
Still, things didn’t return to the status quo. Nine years ago Maclean’s employed eight full-time researchers. Now there are four plus the head of the department-who also does some checking-yet the book size hasn’t decreased. “When it comes to paying for [fact checking],” says Cazzin, “it’s one of the first things to go. I think we’re finding now that it’s not a good idea because once you start having a lot of mistakes it really does reflect on the publication.” Freelancers are brought in most Fridays during production time, but they are expected to check three or four stories of varying length before the magazine closes Friday night. Managing editor Geoffrey Stevens says checkers weren’t singled out-the magazine has fewer writers and editors now as well.
Chatelaine, too, has greatly reduced checking. In mid-October ’98 it introduced what chief copy editor Deborah Aldcorn calls “a more common-sense approach to fact checking.” Chatelaine‘s checking system used to be extremely rigid, she says. Every single fact of every story was checked off. To save time, not money, she insists, checkers are now instructed not to check things they already know. What does this mean? “It’s just things that anybody would consider they know personally, or they’re in the air. I know how to spell Vancouver, so I’m not going to check that. I’ve had people come up to me in the office and say, ‘Do you remember a certain television program? Was this person in it?’ And if I do, it’s confirmed. Historic facts, like I know Confederation occurred in 1867, I’m not going to go to a historical reference book so I can cite a page, but there was a time when people would have done that.” Brenda Spiering, a former checker now writing and editing, occasionally checks for Chatelaine. She says Aldcorn is going to have to be “really, really careful, because I don’t know how many times I thought I knew something absolutely and then I’ve been proved wrong.”
At Saturday Night, Geri Savits-Fine, a checker there for 17 years, remembers when everything changed. It was at a Christmas party shortly after Ken Whyte, now editor of the National Post, took over as editor in 1994. Under his predecessors, John Fraser and Robert Fulford, Saturday Night fact checkers were considered part of the editorial team. Although they weren’t technically staff they often worked in the offices and sat in on some editorial meetings. Savits-Fine was shocked when one of the senior editors approached her at the party and mentioned what a shame it was that the fact checking budget was going to be cut in half. “The other editors weren’t happy about it, but I guess the magazine was bleeding and they had to cut somewhere, so they cut us. They had the interns there anyway to do the smaller pieces. I always had the sense that Whyte didn’t value it.”
Considering Whyte’s background as a newspaperman, it’s not surprising that he was dubious about the fact-checking process. Stevie Cameron, author and former Globe and Mail columnist who is now the editor of Elm Street magazine, says she too was skeptical of fact checking at first, believing that writers should be responsible for verifying their own stories. But two and a half years at the magazine have changed her mind. She’s seen fact checking expose innocent mistakes, shoddy reporting and plagiarism.
Toronto Life has always considered fact checking vital to its credibility, but it too has changed its system. In the past few years it’s lost in-house staff to attrition, and chief of copy editing and research Cynthia Brouse decided not to replace them. Brouse calls on a roster of about 10 freelance checkers and gives the shorter pieces to two unpaid interns. She considers the new system a mixed blessing. It’s advantageous for two reasons. First, because space is at a premium in the magazine’s small Front Street offices, and freelancers work from home; and second, because most stories come in at the same time and this way she can easily assign six or seven pieces at once. But Brouse also acknowledges the new system’s disadvantages. “If someone were to start fact checking right out of the game without ever having worked at a magazine, there are just certain things that she doesn’t know about how a magazine works, and she’s not going to learn them sitting in her kitchen.” For fact checkers to be effectual there must be considerable communication with editors, which is difficult by phone, fax or e-mail.
For the checkers, working from home has another downside. The job has always been a way for young writers or aspiring editors to break into the magazine industry. Whereas once they had the opportunity to establish relationships with editors, who might spot their talents, now they have less chance of making those contacts. Working more closely with editors also helped checkers learn to verify not only the facts, but whether the facts support the sense of the story.
Depth of checking varies from magazine to magazine, but generally researchers try to verify every fact with an original source: by phoning the subjects of the stories, listening to tapes, reading through transcripts and consulting reference books. David Zimmer, editor of Cottage Life, says checkers at his magazine often cross-check the service pieces with two unrelated sources. “When you’re giving people advice on how best to do things and you get it wrong, you hear about it immediately. I can’t see how you can put out a decent magazine without fact checking. It’s the one thing that makes it different from a newspaper or TV. Magazines are one of the last bastions of journalism where you can get the straight dope, and really trust what you read.”
Newspapers, with their furious deadlines, offer a revealing glimpse of the volume of errors that can slip through when no one is double-checking facts. TorontoStar Ombud Don Sellar says theStar publishes 500 to 600 corrections every year and those are only the mistakes that are caught. Sellar says he can think of hundreds of examples where fact checking could have prevented serious errors: of the several dozen libel notices filed every year, for example, more often than not the complaint is about an inaccuracy. But newspapers simply don’t have time to verify every fact. Stories are sifted through several editors in a very short time before going to print. These editors are responsible for spotting inconsistencies or possible errors. Then they check back with the reporter to “verify” those points. Time allows only for a kind of cursory check that would never be considered sufficient by a properly trained magazine checker. When a mistake slips by the newspaper’s various editors, a speedy correction and apology often satisfies the injured party.
When these measures don’t pacify the injured, the value of fact checking-in hard dollars-is evident. On January 17, 1997, an Ontario Court general division judge ordered theStar to pay $25,000 to Niagara Falls lawyer Guy Ungaro for libel. Ungaro sued theStar, publisher John Honderich, managing editor Lou Clancy, former Sunday editor Ellie Tesher and reporter Judy Steed for over $2 million for ruining his professional reputation in a September 4, 1994, front-page article (“An Angry Dad Takes on a Strip Club”), which stated, “Ungaro’s dubious claim to fame is that he was one of the first lawyers in Ontario to be sued successfully for negligence, poor courtroom performance and inept defense of a client.”
It turned out that it was Ungaro’s associate-not Ungaro-who had been accused, but never found guilty, of poor courtroom performance. Five days after the story ran, theStar published a 39-word correction on page A2, which Mr. Justice John Cavarzan said repeated the libel. He reprimanded Steed for not speaking to Ungaro and for failing to check the public record, and chided theStar for not talking to Ungaro before publishing the inadequate correction. The Star reported on January 18, 1997, that Cavarzan dismissed the newspaper’s explanation that mistakes are inevitable “because the newsroom is as big as a football field.” Instead, the error suggested “the need for special procedures to guard against such mistakes.”
Cavarzan’s position notwithstanding, some see fact checking as an unnecessary expense. In their view, fact checking is too picky, too concerned with inconsequential details, too literal-minded. Writer and editor James Chatto remembers a story he wrote for enRoute magazine in which he described a ridiculously expensive bottle of German wine-costly only because of its hand-printed lithograph label-gathering dust in an LCBO store. The fact checker, who was meticulous to the extreme, informed him that the bottle couldn’t possibly be gathering dust since it was locked in a glass cabinet in the liquor store. The notion that “gathering dust” was an apt metaphor completely escaped her. “It seemed cruel to do anything but agree with her,” says Chatto. Still, the editor kept the phrase in.
How far is too far? When does the pursuit of accuracy simply become absurd? Eileen Whitfield, now an associate editor at Toronto Life, says a person could theoretically spend an entire lifetime checking one story. She once spent a full day calling the White House media office, the State Department and the Pentagon, trying to find out the name of President Reagan’s dog. In the end, the name wasn’t even included in the piece. Pat Ireland, who worked at Toronto Life with Dusty Mortimer-Maddox in the mid-’80s, was stunned to hear the New Yorker-trained fact checker spend three days on the phone-even calling Austria-trying to determine whether loden coats were actually brushed with a thistle.
Perhaps what justifies such seemingly inane pursuits is the importance of credibility. Get one small detail wrong and all the reporting is thrown into question. “I can’t tell you how many letters to the editor I’ve seen saying, ‘This story is bullshit from stem to stern, you couldn’t have fact checked it,'” says Brouse. “It may have been that their ceiling really wasn’t eight feet high or their niece’s eyes are not blue but green. They make it sound like the whole job of reporting was faulty when really there are just two fairly inconsequential facts wrong.”
Magazines, unlike daily newspapers, are a more permanent form of journalism. So when a mistake is made, it can’t be corrected the next day. An issue sits on coffee tables, on nightstands, in offices for sometimes more than a month, reinjuring the magazine’s reputation every time another person picks it up. ConsiderNewsweek‘s “zwieback” incident. In early May 1997, Newsweek recalled several hundred thousand copies of a special issue called “Your Child,” which had already been distributed throughout the U.S. and Canada, because one of its stories incorrectly advised that babies as young as five months can safely feed themselves zwieback biscuits and raw carrot chunks. This mistake occurred roughly six months after the magazine obliterated its fact checking department.
Despite its obvious importance, for severely cash-strapped publications like This Magazine, fact checking is out of the question. This’s former editor, Andrea Curtis, says with an editorial staff of two she had to rely on the integrity of the people who write for the magazine. “People who write for us are not doing it just to turn over a fast buck, they’re doing it because they’re committed to either what we are trying to achieve or the particular subject they are investigating. They may spend a couple of years on something.” This has never been sued, or even seriously threatened, even though it often publishes contentious stories. Mind you, suingThis for a cash settlement would hardly be worth pursuing-the magazine lives significantly below the poverty line.
In Quebec, tight budgets aren’t the reason that magazines don’t use checkers. Jean Par?, president of Maclean Hunter Quebec, publisher and former editor of Montreal-based L’actualit?, says fact checking, as English Canada defines it, doesn’t replace good professional journalism. “Fact checking is not done by a class of tape-listening slaves but done as a team effort by the editor, managing editor and the senior editors.” Like most Quebec magazines (except the French version of Reader’s Digest), which follow the European rather than the American tradition,L’actualit? does not call back sources or systematically check transcripts or tapes.
Par? is defensive when it comes to the subject, and with good reason. In April 1990, the magazine published a biting profile of Pierre P?ladeau, the now-deceased owner of Quebecor Inc. Allegations of anti-Semitism had haunted P?ladeau throughout his career. The author of the story, Jean Blouin, wrote “Est-il antisemite?” (Is he anti-Semitic?) and answered the question with what he claimed were P?ladeau’s own words: “Je suis anti-personne, je suis pro-Qu?b?cois…. J’ai un grand respect pour les juifs, mais ils prennent trop de place. Je veux qu’on aide d’abord nos gens qui en ont bien plus besoin.” (I’m anti-no one, I’m pro-Quebecois. I have a large amount of respect of the Jews, but they take up too much space. I want us to help first of all our people who need it.)
It turned out those weren’t exactly P?ladeau’s words: at least they weren’t the words on the tape-recording of the interview. Par? says Blouin first interviewed P?ladeau without a tape recorder and Par? made him do a second, taped interview. “Of course, P?ladeau had said these things or equivalent, he had repeated them in other publications, on radio, and all that has been recorded. But when the interview was done again, for some reason, probably because [P?ladeau] is prudent as a fox, they were not there and the journalist, who was not a staffer of L’actualit?, lied to me. You understand that we can’t listen to 40 or 45 tapes for each issue; we’re satisfied that it’s there. We discovered [later] that the wording on the tape was different. I wouldn’t say that Pierre P?ladeau didn’t say anything of the sort, but I would say it was different enough that we had to say we had not reported the tape correctly.”
L’actualit? contributing editor H?l?ne de Billy says the incident put a major dent in the magazine’s reputation. “Par? took [Blouin’s] word. Didn’t check it really. It has been a long time, but it has been a big thing forL’actualit?. P?ladeau said he was going to sue. He said he’d have Par?’s head.” After Par? apologized and vowed that Blouin would never again work as a journalist in Quebec, P?ladeau agreed not to sue for libel. Par? insists that the magazine wasn’t severely hurt by the incident. “It damaged my ego, but we’ve not lost circulation, we’ve not lost advertising, we’ve not lost a single word.” L’actualit? hasn’t changed its procedures because Par? maintains that it was an isolated incident.
A checker certainly would have caught the fudged quote. Basically, checking is reporting backwards, deconstructing stories to make certain the foundation is solid. “The fact checker can only make sure that the writer is using real bricks, but you cannot control what house they make out of those bricks,” says Toronto Life‘s Eileen Whitfield.
Sheilagh McEvenue didn’t like the house that John Goddard built. Farley Mowat was a fraud, selling fiction as fact, he said, and he had proof. Saturday Night editors Ken Whyte and Dianne de Gayardon de Fenoyl knew the 1996 piece was highly contentious and put McEvenue, one of their best freelance fact checkers, with almost 15 years’ experience, on the case. McEvenue immersed herself in piles of national archives, Mowat’s own books, interviews, notes and diaries and began to discover small inconsistencies. She came to believe Goddard had a fire in his belly to expose Mowat as a bullshit artist and was ignoring certain facts that weakened his argument. McEvenue told the editors she thought Goddard had an agenda and some of his statements didn’t hold up under scrutiny. The editors listened to her but wanted the story and they wanted it to be strong. “So if he can’t say this exactly, what can he say without being wrong?”
“His thesis was off,” says McEvenue. “In his enthusiasm for proving Mowat a liar he missed a few things that he ought not to have. As it turned out, those things were taken out: he said Mowat never once mentioned his wife in a particular book and he had in a couple of places. He was holding Mowat to a standard of journalistic accuracy, but Mowat never claimed to be a journalist. He said throughout the interviews he was a storyteller above all.”
Even the most experienced checkers today wouldn’t be likely to deconstruct a story quite so thoroughly. Most are freelancers who no longer even share the physical space of an editorial office. And they don’t run departments, save Cynthia Brouse at Toronto Life, which means they aren’t there to teach others, like interns, how to do the job properly. Libel lawyer Julian Porter says that bad fact checking can be worse than not checking at all. “Implied in it is a standard of perfection,” he says, but if the checker didn’t do a thorough job or missed a crucial point, it reflects very poorly on the magazine in court. Effectual checking not only demands meticulousness, it requires subtlety, nuance when asking tough questions. Editors and writers don’t want that hard-earned quote lost because a checker botched it.
Skillful researchers don’t read back quotes verbatim unless specifically asked. Nine times out of 10, sources will try to change a quote even if it doesn’t reflect badly on them. But if sources insist, there isn’t much of a choice. People will plead, cry, cajole and scream if they suspect they’re being portrayed negatively in stories. McEvenue laughs when she remembers the end of one less-than-polite conversation: “What kind of filthy rag is Saturday Night magazine? You are going to have the biggest fucking lawsuit on your hands.”
Lawsuit threats are common at magazines that publish contentious stories, but if the facts are entirely in order they have a solid defence. Since Canadian libel law is still much stricter than it is in the U.S., even idle threats are disconcerting.
It seems astonishing that in such a hot legal climate, so many magazines are devaluing fact checking. Still, not all the news is bad. Just as some of the more established magazines are cutting back on it, or at least pushing it onto the sidelines, some of the newer magazines are embracing it. Elm Street, published eight times a year, has three full-time assistant editors whose main job is checking, and Shiftrecently hired ex-Elm Street checker Neil Morton to establish a formal system in its offices. Even Toronto Life is reassesing its situation: this month it will be hiring a full-time checker. Some Quebec magazine journalists, too, are beginning to question the dearth of fact checking in their tradition. Le 30 magazine, for Quebec journalists, recently ran an article on the subject by freelance journalist Marc Cassivi. Last year the new magazine Brill’s Content emerged south of the border. Its niche? Pointing out mistakes that other news agencies and journalists have made while taking every precaution not to make blunders of its own.
You’d think that in the face of an incredulous public and a litigation-obsessed society, more mags would be moving in that direction. After all, magazines have always billed themselves as an authoritative voice. These days it’s obvious we need one-just to cut through the daily assault of massive information and misinformation: infomercials, instant and unedited internet news and advertising supplements masquerading as editorial content. If magazines do manage to hang on to rigorous fact checking, despite the time and expense involved, they’ll have a fighting chance of providing that voice. Readers, who show an almost filial loyalty to their favourite mags, deserve no less.
by Leslie Lucas
Leslie Lucas was a Copy Editor for the Summer 1999 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.