You Call That Fact-Checking?

While recovering from an extracted wisdom tooth this morning, I cheered up when I saw that Talking Points Memo and other blogs have picked up my grousing about George Will’s error-laden global warming column in the Washington Post. When I first became aware of Will’s column on Monday, it seemed to me the perfect example of the general problem with treating op-ed pages as “opinion.” That is, if by opinion, you mean that someone doesn’t have to adhere to the facts. I could state that the Earth is 6000 years old, and no one would dare correct me, because it’s just my opinion. (I guess that’s the rationale that led Forbes and US News to run pieces by young-Earth creationists as “commentary” a couple weeks ago in “honor” of Darwin’s birthday. [Okay. No more air quotes. Promise.])

Now we learn via Andrew Alexander, the Washington Post‘s ombudsman, that the editorial page has a whole team of fact-checkers. Or at least there are personal assistants to George Will, a couple syndication editors, and Post copy editors who have been identified as fact-checkers. Somehow, this army all decided that Will’s piece was just dandy. Even weirder was the post-modern refusal to run a correction from Alan Shearer, the Washington Post Writers Group editorial director: “We have plenty of references that support what George wrote, and we have others that dispute that. So we didn’t have enough to send in a correction.”

It seems as if the Washington Post just doesn’t think this is important. Via Jay Rosen I learned that Alexander’s inaugural ombudsman column today has nary a mention of the affair–even though Alexander himself made inquiries. Maybe Alexander just wanted to say “Hello, World,” in his first piece, without diving straight into any particular complaints. That’s fine. Let’s see what he writes about once the niceties are out of the way. (He invites email: ombudsman@washpost.com )

My own opinion is that this was a serious screw-up, but not an easy one to solve in any systemic way. In an ideal world, editorial pages would employ full-time fact-checkers who felt no fear in pointing out small and large errors of fact. Only after their objections had been satisfied would a column see the light of day. That’s what happens to articles at some magazines today.

In the real world, though, a lot of magazines don’t have fact-checkers on staff, and they expect writers to do the fact-checking themselves. It’s particularly tough for newspapers, which churn out so many stories a day. To fact-check those stories well, they’d have to hire back a fair amount of the people they’ve laid off in recent years. I assume the same probably goes for editorial pages, although I can’t say for sure, never having dealt with them myself.

Still, it remains seriously weird for a national newspaper to run a piece that they claim has been thoroughly fact-checked, which has since been showed to be plainly flawed. It’s also weird for it to then refuse to run a correction based on a bogus sense of balance about the evidence of how much ice there is in the world and what that means for climate change.

A lot of people have left comments here complaining about George Will. And others have then accused them (and me) of being part of a left-wing conspiracy, attacking Will while letting the inaccuracies of others slide by. For me this is not really about Will. It’s about how newspapers and magazines succeed or fail to convey science as accurately as possible. And this case is a textbook example of failure. I hope something is learned from it.

[Update, 2/22: I’ve added a new post addressing some confusion over some late-breaking news about the satellites that measure ice. And along the way, we are reminded of just how weak the multi-layered fact-checking at the Washington Post editorial page is.]