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The Future of Facts

BUDAPEST – At a recent conference of newspaper editors in which I took part, a small crowd gathered to talk about journalism and new media. When I told the group that I had begun my career as a magazine fact-checker, several of them grew misty-eyed, as if someone had told a group of priests about his childhood as an altar boy.

I brought up my past because I think that fact-checking is the single best training not just for journalism, but for life in general. It teaches you to think skeptically. It is easy to believe something when someone who appears knowledgeable asserts it. But if you have a responsibility for checking facts, you listen more carefully.

On what sources does the speaker base his facts? Is there something in it for him – a higher stock price, an advertising fee, or someone else’s gratitude? Or is he simply biased because of the people he knows, the company he works for, or the attitudes he picked up at home?

I spent hours picking through sources – mostly dusty papers in the years before the Internet, or strangers on the telephone – to clarify questions of fact: Was this really the first such product? Was Mr. Smith 42 or already 43? Was his claim that revenues had grown for the last five years true merely because of acquisitions that his company had made? And so on.