Fact is, fiction's not only in politics

Some disputed facts – like whether Tony Abbott is sexist or Julia lied – are impossible to prove. That doesn’t mean journalism should be exempt from fact-checking.

Three fact-checking outfits have now been set up in Australia ahead of the federal election – the biggest at the ABC – with the mission to scrutinise statements by politicians, business leaders, trade union leaders and others involved in the public political and policy debates.

There are real issues with what the fact-checking sites are planning to do including the question of what constitutes a fact, what’s a fact that’s partly true – this sounds almost Orwellian – and what’s a straight out porky. None of this is clear or simple.

Putting that aside for a moment, it’s curious to say the least that while these fact-checking outfits will be run by journalists, and the checking will cover almost every imaginable organisation involved in the political process, it won’t cover journalism.

This seems to pre-suppose that journalists and the media companies they work for are not key players in policy and political debates and that there is no need for fact- checking of journalists and media commentators.

Not to single them out, but does this mean that on climate change, the ‘facts’ that Andrew Bolt and say, Robert Manne use to make diametrically opposite claims do not warrant checking? Why not? They are both hugely influential. Where’s the evidence to suggest they are less prone to retail porkies or part-porkies, than people who aren’t journalists and commentators?

The fact is that formal fact-checking has never been part of the culture of Australian journalism. There was a time that has now well and truly ended, when most American news magazines and some newspapers – Time, Newsweek, US News and World Report and the New York Times among them – employed armies of fact-checkers.

Their job was to go through every story before it was published, check every `fact’ in the story and call every person quoted in the story to ensure the quotes were accurate.

The fact-checkers were mostly young men and women – more women than men I think – and they were ferocious and pedantic in their work and as a result, were the bane of most journalists and reporters whose stories they checked.

In the 1980s and into the 1990s at TIME Magazine where I worked as both a writer and an editor, the fact-checkers sometimes drove me mad. It was true that they occasionally picked up minor factual errors in my stories – for which I was grateful – and a couple of times, they saved me from the horror of having misspelt someone’s name.

Sometimes, people I quoted in stories repudiated their quotes and breathless fact-checkers would come demanding the quotes be changed which, if my memory serves me right, I might have agreed to a couple of times because the changes were trivial.

More often than not, I refused to make the changes. Sometimes when quotes were read back, people realised they had said too much to the reporter and so they would insist that they had been misquoted.

What really drove reporters and writers crazy was the demand for extra facts by the fact-checkers. The pedantry was gruelling. I recall once being woken in the middle of the night by a New York based fact-checker demanding an absolutely vital piece of information.

We had produced a US edition cover story on Elle Macpherson and in the story, the reporter said that Elle’s father had a yacht and that Elle often went out with him sailing on Sydney Harbor. At two in the morning, the fact-checker wanted us to call Macpherson’s father and ask him for the exact size of his yacht. In feet and inches. And also, could we ask him how many times exactly did Elle go sailing with him.

Fact-checkers did not read whole stories to people whose quotes and details they were checking which meant that context, which is so important – because context is as much about accuracy as `facts’ – was beyond the remit of the fact checkers. 

Their job was limited to checking ‘uncontested facts’ – where someone lived, whether he had blue eyes, whether Elle’s father took Elle out sailing twice a week on average or was it three times.

Yes, they checked quotes, which at least ensured that reporters weren’t making up quotes wholesale, not an unknown thing in journalism, but as for the accuracy of the quotes, that was always contestable once it was established that the person actually existed.

Did the culture of fact-checking mean that American journalism was more factually accurate and less biased than Australian and British journalism where this was the responsibility of reporters and to a certain extent, sub-editors?

(Mind you, nowadays, sub editing is outsourced and most sub-editors – that’s if media companies still employ them – have virtually no contact with the reporters whose work they edit.)

There is no simple answer to that question because accuracy and bias is not just a function of checking facts. It is well known, for instance, that in the 60s and 70s, TIME Magazine regularly distorted the on the spot reporting of its correspondents in Vietnam to reflect the magazine’s support for the Vietnam War.

The ‘facts’ were checked, the quotes were accurate and yet the published reports had little relation to the stories filed by the correspondents. Every journalist knows how easy it is to change the context of facts and quotes simply by changing emphases and leaving out facts and quotes that do not support the story you want to tell. The best journalists try hard not to operate in this way but because reporting at root is a subjective business, they don’t always succeed.

In some ways, politicians, business and trade union lobbyists, NGO activists – indeed all who are involved in public debates about politics and policy – are selective about the facts they use to promote their case.  

This is certainly true when it comes to political advertising, where facts and quotes are used at best selectively and at worst to totally distort what an opponent says and does and to portray that opponent in the most negative way possible.

None of our newly minted fact-checking outfits can even begin to deal with these issues. There is no way, for instance, that even the most rigorous checking could determine whether Julia Gillard was telling the truth when she called Tony Abbott a sexist or whether Tony Abbott was being factually accurate when he called Gillard a liar.

These are contestable ‘facts’ that no amount of checking can turn into some sort of truth. It is the role of journalism surely to report these contestable `facts’ but it is also the role of journalism – on the basis that the reporter is experienced, ethical and has no barrow to push – to provide context to what is being said and sometimes to make a judgment about whether what is being said is actually true.

Despite all this, it is a mistake for the fact-checking sites to exempt journalism from their scrutiny. It may well be that in the end, the work of these sites won’t be all that significant but right now, journalism needs as much scrutiny as possible and the limited scrutiny that fact-checking would provide is better than no scrutiny at all.

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