My first job in journalism wasn’t a real job, it was an unpaid internship.
I worked really hard and got all the coffee I could drink in return, but unless I had a byline in the magazine I wasn’t getting a paycheck.
I worked mostly as a fact-checker.
I would receive a draft of an article someone else wrote and it was my job to independently verify any statement of fact in the story – spelling, locations, the color of the carpet in a room, quotes from a variety of people.
All of it had to be checked to ensure the story was correct.
It was great training for newspapers, where the reporter is required to get facts right the first time and the fast-paced nature of even a weekly newspaper compared to a monthly magazine doesn’t leave time for luxuries like secondary verification.
Get it right, right now.
I don’t envy the fact-checkers of the world of today. Besides the fact that people try to twists and stretch the definition of what is or isn’t a fact in this day and age, and opinions running rampant, some of the facts out there are just ludicrous.
This week The Guardian got a copy of Stormy Daniels’ book wherein she details her alleged affair with Donald Trump in 2006. She describes in vivid, if not great, detail certain areas of his anatomy.
What’s a fact-checker supposed to do when confronted with that piece of trivia? I used to do it – and I was pretty good at it, too – and I have no idea how I would approach that piece of information, other than asking my editor,
“Do I really need to?”
It’s a dark time for the fact checking profession.
But in working as a fact-checker, you learn to trust experts. Most people have something they’re specialized in – and it doesn’t mean quantum physics or plant cell mitosis.
Anyone who has been on a job more than a week could probably classify themselves as an expert at something, even if they’re really good at counting cash or stocking shelves in a grocery store.
If I were to do a story on how stockrooms are organized, I wouldn’t call up a university to try and find somebody who is an expert in that.
Even if someone wrote their doctoral thesis on stockroom organization trends – and after I think about that for, I’m sure somebody has and is being paid six figures because of it – I’m not sure they’re the best person to talk to.
The high school kid who has to find room for that palette of canned green beans? He knows what he’s doing.
He’s an expert. He’s the guy I want to help me fact check that story. Not the Ph.D.
It’s trendy now to reject the word of experts if we disagree or we don’t like what we hear. We’re more tribal now than we ever were before, hunkered down in our ideological camps slinging our arguments and dodging retorts.
You’ll see pundits on TV masquerading as journalists because they possibly once were one – and then they put forward their opinions and treat them as facts. A lot of time, they’ll begin the sentence with “I feel.” As though feelings mattered outside of Valentine’s Day or the playground.
A former colleague of mine had a great response for those phrases:
“Facts don’t care about your feelings.”
It’s almost as though it’s elitist to either be an expert or listen to them. It’s not. It’s called being an adult and accepting that you don’t know everything. You’re probably an expert at something of your own.
The hurdle comes when we need to hear something we don’t want to hear, or if it could somehow disrupt our lives.
That’s the problem with climate change, or economic news. Sometimes what the experts say means that we will ultimately have to change something about ourselves.
So when a voice comes out and says the experts are wrong, of course we’ll gravitate to that voice.
Of course it’s right, we say, we knew what we were talking about all on our own, we say. It’s a nice validation.
It’s not a sustainable belief. We need to respect that sometimes facts don’t care about our feelings or our self-esteem. And sometimes, we’re going to be wrong.
Have some pity on the fact-checkers of the world that go to great lengths to ensure what you learn is accurate and true. No matter how distasteful the fact might be.