The Importance of Being Earnest (in Fact-Checking)
For many of us who create content, the task of fact-checking can sometimes feel arduous and even one that may seem almost trivial in the face of constant pressure to meet deadlines. But neglecting to be vigilant in this matter can have negative ramifications far beyond a missed deadline.
Such is the case this week for a New York magazine reporter who erroneously reported the spectacular story of a 17-year-old New York City whiz kid who claimed to have made $72 million investing in the stock market.
The teen, Mohammed Islam of Queens, later told various news outlets he made the whole story up after he began to receive a flurry of attention and scrutiny after the original New York piece was published. The magazine, for its part, issued an apology while also outlining its fact-checking process, which in the end proved to be faulty.
While the reporter should have been more skeptical of the fantastical tale of a high school student making a fortune in the stock markets, it was really a failure of the entire editorial organization. As the magazine notes in its apology piece, it employed a fact-checker to determine the veracity of Islam’s claim. The fact checker and reporter were apparently duped by a phony bank statement Islam and a friend created on his computer in ten minutes, according to one news report. And the magazine’s editors are also there to filter through the initial reporting and ask further questions, especially if some facts in a story seem dubious. They failed in this instance as well.
This is a cautionary tale for not only the news media, but any organization that produces content for public consumption. Whether you’re a PR professional, marketer, blogger or journalist, the temptation to get a good story out to the world quickly amidst the 24/7 news cycle can often override our natural instincts of skepticism. Going back to double check a fact or financial figure may seem like a hassle when our work days are so busy and filled with deliverables, but we should always listen to that nagging voice in the back of our head telling us something doesn’t look right. It’s better to be safe than sorry; and once you’ve got egg on the face in the public sphere for an incident such as the one New York magazine now finds itself in, it’s very hard to wash off.