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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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"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

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