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Magazine Quality Control and "Facts"

Posted on Tuesday, August 28, 2018 at 9:17 PM

Expand your quality control and get more readers and advertisers.

By William Dunkerley

Ask publishers about their magazines' quality control and you're likely to hear about two issues: 1) the physical appearance of content (print or digital) and 2) error elimination through proofreading and copyediting.

There's another factor that increasingly demands greater attention. It is the fact checking of content. In today's increasingly competitive content marketplace, "factualness" is emerging as a competitive point of differentiation. Being factual is a critical element for any publication seeking to produce content that truly serves the needs and interests of its audience.

Competition Has Changed

In the past most magazines simply competed with other professionally produced magazines for content supremacy. These experienced editors and publishers typically had at least a rudimentary regard for fact checking.

But now we are faced with a far wider range of content providers: bloggers, fly-by-night online publications, and even content produced by advertisers themselves. One thing that tends to characterize competitors in this category that they don't take a reader-centric approach to content production and curation.

Many are more interested in pushing a point of view, promoting a product or service, or just calling attention to themselves. That means fact checking is sometimes a last concern. It doesn't enter into their quality control equation.

This is an important concept for us to keep in mind, I think. It presents an opportunity for us to differentiate ourselves from competitors less dedicated to being factual. This opportunity, however, requires that we sharpen our quality control with more stringent fact-checking practices.

Fact-Checking Delinquents

Some purveyors of general news serve as good examples of what happens when fact checking is thrown out the window. Our sister publication, Editors Only, recently recounted several 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 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.

CNN played a prominent role in propagating the fake death story. Although the network promptly corrected its false report, at Editors Only we sought answers from CNN on how the hoax evaded their editorial quality controls:

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.

Fact-Checking Advice

Writing in Editors Only for June 2018, Editorial Solutions president Howard Rauch pointed to three flags that should be addressed when developing a fact-checking policy:

--Verify research.

--Use accuracy checklists.

--Confirm the validity of claims.

Rauch opines, "For many editors, especially those with B2B publications, fact checking has been a do-it-yourself affair. Staffers do their own verification because hiring full-time accuracy monitors is beyond most budgets. At the same time, the array of misinformation has exploded online. Plus, growing demand for content now means more frequent deadlines, often resulting in hasty editing.

"Meanwhile, mounting workloads have increased reliance on outsourced material to meet content demands. In too many cases, editors fill space with unedited PR announcements. And unfortunately, there are times when breaking news sections include promotional material that amounts to an editorial embarrassment."

As a result, Rauch says, accuracy can fall by the wayside without a good fact-checking regimen.

Boast about Your Fact Checking

If you have a thoroughgoing approach to fact checking, be sure to use it in your advertising and circulation sales efforts. Contrast what you are doing with the apparent approach of your content competitors.

For audience promotion the pitch is obvious: "We'll give you content that you can rely upon. It is fact-checked and curated with your needs and interests in mind. The content we provide is free of hidden agenda and sloppy reporting."

For advertisers the pitch is somewhat more sophisticated. You see, one of the benefits to a company that places ads in a publication comes in the form of increased effectiveness. An advertiser distributing its own claims is one thing. But when it advertises in a respected publication, the ads take on a unique presumption of credibility.

That benefit does not apply to ads in publications with lesser reputations. Not all advertisers realize that. Their ads benefit by being seen in your publication. Be sure to let advertisers know that.

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

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