In the wake of the Rolling Stone rape story, its retraction, and Columbia School of Journalism’s excellent analysis of the many ways Rolling Stone and journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely went wrong, Monica Guzman wrote about fear and fact-checking for Columbia Journalism Review. She raises some strong points. Journalists fear big mistakes (and little mistakes, too), and that fear motivates us to be extra thorough in our fact-checking and reporting. Usually.
Also, in our over-sharing world, we have many more opportunities to make mistakes, and the public has more opportunities to call out a journalist’s mistake. A mistake doesn’t disappear so easily anymore.
When I write magazine features, I do my research to make sure what I’m saying is accurate. I run quotes by my sources to make sure those quotes accurately portray what the source really meant. And after six-plus years at a legal news service, where I wrote semi-regular news stories, I learned by repetition the importance of attribution. So far in my career, I’ve been pretty lucky in the mistake department. My screw-ups embarrassed me, but not anyone else. Then again, I’m not writing long-form investigative journalism. The pressure in that line of work must be enormous. But it’s important work, and I have much respect for the journalists that ask the hard questions and explore important issues.
Like Guzman says, sometimes fear is a good motivator: when a tornado hits, we head to the basement. When we’re reporting, we fact-check!