Cite-Check-Fact-Check

What’s the difference between the Vermont Law Review and The New Yorker magazine? Oh, let me count the ways. There are many, but I will focus on one difference: cite checking and fact checking. While all law journals are concerned with checking citations, The New Yorker is famously known for checking facts—verifying the truth of all facts mentioned in each article.

Editors of law journals worry lest a statement might be printed that is not cited to some previous source. The Bluebook states that the central function of citations is to allow the reader to efficiently locate the cited source. The reasons for such caution are many, among them, are honoring the rules of stare decisis and providing the reader with the opportunity to make an independent judgment that the underlying text is accurately depicted.

Some may find it curious that law journals are focused on the citations and not on the truth of text. It should not be surprising, as few magazine publishers are concerned with facts; neither are book editors. To the extent that editors do worry about the truth, they leave it to the author to verify facts. What counts as editing in law books, I leave for some future post.

The New Yorker does check the facts, or at least finds someone who will vouch for a fact. The New Yorker is admired for its efforts to ensure that facts published are accurate. Of the actual practice of fact checking little is published. John McPhee, famous The New Yorker writer and author of 32 books on all variety of topics from fish to tennis balls, wrote an essay (subscription necessary) describing fact-checking at The New Yorker.
McPhee’s essay begins with a recital of The New Yorker fact-checking reasoning. A long-time fact-checker for The New Yorker put it this way:

“Each word in a piece that even has a shred of fact clinging to it is scrutinized, and, if passed, given the checker’s imprimatur, which consists of a fine pencil tick…. [an error in print] will live on and on in libraries carefully cataloged, scrupulously indexed…silicon-chipped, deceiving researcher after researcher down through the ages, all of whom will make new errors on the strength of the original errors, and so on and on into an exponential explosion of errata.”

McPhee follows with several examples of facts he wrote that needed more than the basic check in a reference book. In one essay, on private industries’ role in creation of weapons-grade nuclear materials, McPhee writes about incendiary balloons released from Japan during World War II. The crossing of these thirty-three foot diameter balloons through the Pacific Ocean and exploding in the Northwest is well documented. One of these balloons, McPhee was told, floated across the Pacific and had landed on the Hanford Engineer Works in Washington State, home of the first large nuclear reactor in the world. Because the Hanford engineer McPhee interviewed had worked at Hanford during the relevant time, but had not himself seen the landing of the balloon, the fact-checkers needed to find a source to confirm the landing. The travail of the fact-checker was made more difficult by the rules of wartime secrecy; few—perhaps not even President Truman—knew that plutonium for nuclear bombs was being produced at Hanford Engineer Works. Calls were made, questions were asked, some leads circled back to McPhee’s informant, until just before the magazine went to press, when a retiree in Florida, a former manager at the plant, was discovered and proved willing to confirm that the balloon landed but did not explode.

For a publication with The New Yorker’s readership, there is a final fact-check. “After an error gets into The New Yorker,” McPhee writes, “heat-seeking missiles rise off the earth and home in on the author, the editor, and even the shade of the founder.” Readers are known to complain about inaccurate facts even in fiction pieces; one reader complained about a fictional story in which the characters eat McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets four years before their first production.

Ultimately, for all their hard work, it seems that there might exist an eternal regression problem. Who, after all, checks the facts of the fact checkers? If books are not fact checked, why are references from a book considered sufficient? And if one source’s statement of the fact suffices to prove the truth of a matter, why not check that fact as well? Where should it end?

I will return to these topics in a later post. But for now, let me leave you with a video of fact checkers at work, in which two fact checkers need to determine if Bill Murray really drinks a glass of milk before going to bed. Enjoy!

Carl Yirka

Advertisements