The evolving definition of fact

An article by the New York Times‘ Virginia Heffernan describes a decade of transformation in the fact-checking department – and what it means online.

To give readers a taste of what a fact-checker does, the NYT text is annotated with checker queries and the author’s responses. For example, the story lead:

“The day I became a fact-checker at The New Yorker, I received one set of red pencils and one set of No. 2 pencils. [FC: There used to be a training period before the pencils.] [[VH: O.K. for “the day I became a fact-checker” to designate end of training period?]] ”

Fact-checking used to be more rigourous, Heffernan writes:

“In checking long, reported articles, checkers sometimes made dozens of phone calls a week — to bartenders about a restaurant’s ambience, to E.M.T.’s about how stretchers are handled or to anti-abortion activists about the dimensions of ultrasound images on their placards. Not infrequently, checkers were in the diplomacy business, and the best checkers were known for their bedside manners with sources, reporters and editors. Good checkers did not play gotcha, did not gossip about which reporters were error-prone and stayed true to the goals of journalism — to be newsworthy and interesting — as well as to our sub-sublibrarian dedication to factuality.”

Shrinking newsrooms have eroded the profession somewhat, which is mitigated by the introduction of Google, which allowed checkers to stop digging through microfiche to double-confirm facts. But there’s a new trend in fact-checking that may cause more problems for the traditional fact-checker, Heffernan writes. The public has taken it upon itself to factcheck articles, and is rarely afraid to write  suggestions online. 

“Surprisingly, though, the focus of modern fact checks is rarely what we 20th-century fact-checkers would have underlined as checkable facts. Instead, Web fact-checkers generally try to show how articles presented in earnest are actually self-parody. These acts of reclassifying journalism as parody or fiction — and setting off excerpts so they play as parody — resembles literary criticism more than it does traditional fact-checking.”

The problem, Heffernan writes, is “if the Web has changed what qualifies as fact-checking, has it also changed what qualifies as a fact?”

For her part, Heffernan suggests that any ‘facts’ on the Internet have become more rhetorical than anything, but notes that she can’t verify the statement.