Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Post Strikes Back

A previous post noted the reported non-response response of the Washington Post's new ombudsman, Andy Alexander, to the fact-challenged George Will column Dark Green Doomsayers (see the posts here and here).

Originally, Alexander didn't have much to say beyond (I'm paraphrasing here) "The Post's editors tell me that the piece went through a 'multi-layered' fact checking process."

Today, Alexander tackles the issue officially in his ombudsman's column:
Opinion columnists are free to choose whatever facts bolster their arguments. But they aren't free to distort them.

The question of whether that happened is at the core of an uproar over a recent George F. Will column and The Post's fact-checking process.
Here is what Alexander reports in regard to the actual fact-checking process on the Will piece:
It began with Will's own research assistant, Greg Reed. When the column was submitted on Feb. 12 to The Washington Post Writers Group, which edits and syndicates it, Reed sent an accompanying e-mail that provided roughly 20 Internet reference links in support of key assertions in the column. Richard Aldacushion, editorial production manager at the Writers Group, said he reviewed every link. The column was then edited by editorial director Alan Shearer and managing editor James Hill.

Next, it went to The Post's op-ed editor, Autumn Brewington, who said she also reviewed the sources.

The editors who checked the Arctic Research Climate Center Web site believe it did not, on balance, run counter to Will's assertion that global sea ice levels "now equal those of 1979." I reviewed the same Web citation and reached a different conclusion.
Here's the key: the Post's editors apparently "fact-checked" the column by looking at the links, and only the links, that Will's team provided. This is stunningly inadequate.

Suppose I submitted a column claiming that the Apollo moon landings were hoaxed. It would be trivially easy for me to provide twenty (or a hundred) links supporting this assertion. Would it be adequate fact-checking if the Post were to look at my links, and only at my links? Or should the fact checkers also look at NASA's site and other resources to get viewpoints from someone else? Maybe they could pick up the phone and get NASA's position ("Say, did y'all send some guys to the moon a while back? Got any evidence, like maybe a moon rock or something? Or a few snapshots?").

I think the answer is obvious, but the Post's editors apparently didn't do any of that. In fact, Alexander says that no attempt was made to check with the Arctic Climate Research Center until long after reaction to the column exploded:
But according to Bill Chapman, a climate scientist with the center, there was no call from Will or Post editors before the column appeared. He added that it wasn't until last Tuesday -- nine days after The Post began receiving demands for a correction -- that he heard from an editor at the newspaper. It was [op-ed editor Autumn] Brewington who finally e-mailed, offering Chapman the opportunity to write something that might help clear the air.
Something is seriously wrong here. The Post failed miserably in its most fundamental obligation to readers: to provide accurate information.

To compare what the Post did with what it should have done, it's instructive to look at a description of the op-ed fact-checking policy over at The New York Times. Here's an excerpt:
Here are the clear-cut things the editor will do:

* Fact-check the article. While it is the author's responsibility to ensure that everything written for us is accurate, we still check facts—names, dates, places, quotations.

We also check assertions. If news articles—from The Times and other publications—are at odds with a point or an example in an essay, we need to resolve whatever discrepancy exists.

For instance, an Op-Ed article critical of newly aggressive police tactics in Town X can't flatly say the police have no reason to change their strategy if there have been news reports that violence in the town is rising. This doesn't mean the writer can't still argue that there are other ways to deal with Town X's crime problem - he just can't say that the force's decision to change came out of the blue.
This is certainly not to say that the Times always gets it right. But the piece contains a pretty clear statement of what did not happen at the Post: "If news articles—from The Times and other publications—are at odds with a point or an example in an essay, we need to resolve whatever discrepancy exists."

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