Why it’s better for fact-checking to be done in public

There has been a lot of sound and fury this week about a Newsweek cover story written by Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, a piece that many critics — including New York Times columnist Paul Krugman — argue should never have been published because of the factual and other errors they say it contains. Meanwhile Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has written a post praising the nameless fact-checkers who prevent mistakes from appearing in magazines like his and Time. But isn’t there a public value to seeing mistakes that are made before the fact-checkers get to them and seeing them corrected? I would argue that there is. If what we are after is more transparency when it comes to journalism, public fact-checking and debate is an integral part of that process.

Just to recap for those who haven’t been following the drama, Ferguson — a professor of history at Harvard and the author of several books — wrote a cover story for Newsweek (which merged with Tina Brown’s online entity the Daily Beast in 2010) in which he argued that President Obama has failed to fulfill a number of promises related to the U.S. economy and therefore doesn’t deserve to be supported for reelection. The piece triggered an outpouring of criticism from a number of observers and complaints that Ferguson’s argument was based on faulty numbers and deliberate misinterpretations of the evidence.

Why is it wrong to outsource fact-checking?

Politico writer Dylan Byers has been one of those holding Ferguson’s feet to the fire for the story, saying the writer used a flawed argument based on skewed figures and arguing that Newsweek should never have let the piece see the light of day. As Byers put it:

“Newsweek has stayed silent on the controversy, choosing instead to ‘monitor the debate’ as if the editor and publisher bear no responsibility for what appears in their pages.”

Coates, meanwhile, said in his Atlantic tribute to fact-checkers that what the magazine had really done was “unwittingly outsourced its fact-checking to the web.” But is that such a bad thing? The Ferguson piece has been thoroughly fact-checked, debunked and otherwise dismantled by Byers and a host of others, including Krugman — and the Atlantic, which does a line-by-line critique of the piece and the flaws in the historian’s logic — as well as Andrew Sullivan at Newsweek’s sister publication the Daily Beast and Matthew Yglesias at Slate.

My point is this: Isn’t it better to have those criticisms and counterarguments out where readers can see them and inform themselves if they wish? And if Ferguson is the type of academic who plays fast and loose with the truth in order to make his argument, as Atlantic writer James Fallows seems to suggest he might be, isn’t it better that we know that by seeing his arguments in as clear a light as possible? If those errors or logical inconsistencies had been fixed by nameless fact-checkers at Newsweek, all we would really know is that the magazine has a good fact-checking department.

One of the most controversial aspects of the idea of “news as a process” is that in some cases it involves distributing information before the truth of that information is fully known, something I have written about before as it applied to what Andy Carvin of National Public Radio was doing during the revolutions of the Arab Spring: Carvin says he used his Twitter followers as a kind of “public newsroom” that helped him confirm and verify information coming from Egypt and elsewhere. In a similar way, Reddit and Twitter have been used as public fact-checking engines and have shown they can be very effective.

It’s valuable to see errors made and corrected

Some, including former Poynter writer Steve Myers, have made the argument that some kinds of news — such as the shooting at a theater in Aurora, Colo., where the gunman was initially linked to the Tea Party political group — shouldn’t be treated as a process, because of the risk of making serious mistakes. And others have argued that an ABC News report this week about director Tony Scott (who committed suicide) having an inoperable brain tumor should never have made it to air, because it turned out not to be true.

Obviously, no one wants publishers or media companies of any kind to just print, air or distribute information they know to be wrong. But in cases like the Aurora shooting and the revolutions in Egypt, the reality is that the availability of “true” information is in a constant state of flux. And in cases like Ferguson’s Newsweek piece, the validity of an argument like the one he is trying to make is also open to interpretation, as Krugman himself admits. So why shouldn’t that interpretation be exposed and debated in public instead of behind closed doors in some editorial office?

One point some critics have made about such an approach — including during a Twitter debate I touched off a few months ago when I asked why we need editors — is that not everyone will see or read the corrections to a report or will have the time to follow up on the allegations about a piece like Ferguson’s, and that is undoubtedly true. That is why it’s almost as important to have places that collect those kinds of things, whether it’s “Regret the Error” author Craig Silverman’s column at Poynter or next to the source of the original report, as with the Daily Beast’s list of criticisms and outlets debunking Ferguson’s piece.

In his post, Krugman describes how when he writes a column for the New York Times, he has to submit a list of links and sources for the claims he makes, which an editor then uses to test his arguments. In an ideal world, I think we’d be better off if the columnist just added those links to his column and let his readers fact-check the validity of his claims — and if others did the same. To paraphrase Jeff Jarvis: “Do your best, and let the internet do the rest.”

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Hans Gerwitz and Shutterstock/Swellphotography