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Thu, Jan. 20th, 2005, 03:33 am
Fact Checking

A number of you might have noticed that the description of BitTorrent in articles about it are frequently a bit, ahem, confused. I won't point to specifics here because I don't want to pick on anyone, I wish to explain the phenomenon.

There are two things at work here. First, sometimes the original author is a bit confused. This is usually the case in the sort of quick write-it-and-print stories you see in most newspapers, where an author who has never even heard of the subject before spends a day, if that, researching the story. This isn't usually irresponsibility on the journalist's part, it's simply the amount of resources they're given, and they do what they can. Newspapers are getting squeezed badly lately, and generally are resorting even more than before to simply printing whatever goes out over AP with a sentence or two changed. Which leads to the question of why we have newspapers at all and people don't simply read AP, but I digress. My point was that there's a second, more common and important, cause for the garbled explanations.

After a journalist finishes writing their story, it's generally sent to a fact checker. Fact checkers serve to avoid embarassing gaffes, such as getting a person's name wrong, or saying that they work for the wrong employer, or some other such straightforward, objective fact. (Neither of those have ever been done wrong for me, by the way.) They also serve to help the publication check that their journalists aren't making stories from whole cloth. I rather like this sort of checking, and view it as a nice courtesy to make sure that my name is spelt right, and my number of children isn't miscounted.

I just wish fact checkers would stop asking me about the working of BitTorrent. I'm quite happy to go over it in excruciating detail with a journalist who wants to get their description right, but the fact checkers always make it worse. What happens is this: First, the journalist writes a reasonably non-technical explanation of how it works, frequently saying something a little bit misleading or slightly non-factual. This isn't actually as much of a problem as it might sound - readers who don't know all of the material already probably won't fully understand, much less remember, the subtle details of an explanation they read, so as long as the explanation gives the right general impression in a way most readers will understand I'm happy. I long ago gave up on having my own explanations be printed verbatim - my slavish devotion to precise factuality results in sentences so finely wordcrafted that most attempts to paraphrase them completely mangle their meaning, and by the same token most attempts to understand them completely miss the point. In any case, the original story has an explanation which, while imperfect, is close to the level of communicativeness which is reasonably attainable under the circumstances.

Now the fact checker comes in. The fact checker, unlike the journalist, has usually spent no time researching the subject whatsoever, and so as a lay person reading the story they slightly misinterpret it, then paraphrase their misinterpretation and ask me if it's correct. Inevitably this bastardized explanation says something grossly misleading or not quite factual, and though I've long since learned that I really ought to say 'yeah, whatever' and have them leave the story as is, I can never resist the temptation to provide a correction, at which point they go back to the story and rewrite some sentences based on their incorrect understanding of my correction of their paraphrasing of their incorrect understanding of the original explanation. Unsurprisingly, this always makes the explanation worse.

This may come off as a complaint, but I'd like to end it with a plea: Newspapers of the world, please have a policy that if there's something your fact checker doesn't understand, they should leave it leave it alone and trust the journalist to know what they're talking about. Your stories will be better for it.

Thu, Jan. 20th, 2005 06:15 pm (UTC)
randallsquared

But people typically believe they understand something, "you know, basically", after having read a lay description of it. So there's no scale by which the fact checker can note that they appear to not understand the subject. Relying on someone's judgement to know when they're judgement is poor seems unlikely to work. :)

Fri, Jan. 21st, 2005 08:35 pm (UTC)
(Anonymous): Contact?

Hello,

I have some technical questions and possibly a great offer for you. Please contact me with a phone number at RLsloan2@bsu.edu.

Thanks,

Ryan

Wed, Jan. 26th, 2005 12:56 am (UTC)
synaptikchaos

ah yes the fact checkers. those and the copy editors are the bane of our (journalists) existence. with every article i submit to publication for my campus newspaper, inevitably, something in it will be changed so that the message i initially tried to convey is completely stripped of any wit or elegance.

so far, i've had good experiences with "real" companies/magazines publishing my work pretty much untouched. i'm sure i'll have a run in with one sometime in my life though.

Fri, Jan. 28th, 2005 08:35 am (UTC)
ryanlrussell: Fact checkers

I'm usually quite surprised when I hear from a fact checker at all. I've been quoted in various articles in the neighborhood of 50 times. I've been contacted by a fact checker exactly twice. I can't recall having any particular problem with them. Usually, the only problem is when someone writing an article tries to put something in layman's terms. Once or twice I've had a quote taken out of context.