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Journalism
 

Fact Check!

Brides magazine has a fact-checker. She does things like verify the cost of honeymoons and makes sure that Vera Wang did, in fact, design that dress, and compares the captions on winter flower bouquet slideshows with pictures in botany reference books. It would be terrible to mistake a eucalyptus pod for a mere pussy willow.

Many American magazines, from trashy celebrity weeklies to highbrow general-interest journals, have fact-checkers of some sort. I worked as one in 2008, when, with three other Harper’s interns, I fact-checked the magazine’s Index from beginning to end. Being the primary speaker of foreign languages in the intern cubicle, I ended up doing a lot of the international checking for the magazine. Percentage of Russians who say one goal of U.S. foreign policy is “the complete destruction of Russia”: 43. Number of Iraqi stray dogs that Operation Baghdad Pups has helped emigrate to the United States since 2003: 66.

I quickly learned that fact-checking is a predominantly American phenomenon. The French don’t do much of it, most Russian papers certainly don’t either, and even the Swiss — possibly the most exacting and precise people on the planet — do not make use of fact-checkers in quite the same way as Americans do. Yet their presses keep rolling, and their readers keep reading, and their brides still buy roses, if by another name. People even trust the press in Switzerland much more than they do in the U.S.: 46 percent of Swiss people said they had confidence in their newspapers and magazines in 2010. Among Americans, it was only 25 percent.

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