Four fact-checking tips inspired by the NYT’s four-error, 135-word correction on John McCain’s obituary

The most anxiety-provoking story I ever oversaw was an obituary. Louis Ingelhart was likely the most important person in the history of Ball State University’s journalism program. He arrived in Muncie in 1953 and essentially developed almost every meaningful program associated with journalism during his time there, including the creation of a journalism minor, major and the department. He served as the department’s first chairman and also oversaw the Ball State Daily News for a time.

Beyond that, he was a legend in press freedom. He won dozens of First Amendment awards and had awards named after him. He was elected to the state’s journalism hall of fame as well as the College Media Association hall of fame. His list of awards and accolades reads like the “to-do list” of a journalism titan.

It was the day before the spring semester was to start when I got a call from someone at the newsroom, telling me they heard Louie had taken ill. It was about 5 p.m. and we had a skeleton crew working at the paper that night, given the first issue back was usually sports recaps and a few fluffy features. By the time I got to the office, we had it confirmed that he died. It was 6 p.m. and we had six hours to rip up the paper and make an appropriate tribute to this man.

Signs were posted all over the newsroom reading “IN-GEL-HART” so that no one would misspell his name. We had students combing through various publications and images to make sure we knew exactly when he graduated from college or what his job in which city. We had designers scratching out various front pages and photography editors scanning in 50-year-old black and white images.

At one point, my editor said something to me about how we needed to not take this so seriously or something and I recalled a line that hockey coach Herb Brooks told his players after they won the Miracle on Ice game. His team was playing Finland for the gold medal after the Miracle and his team wasn’t as focused as he felt it should be. Rather than talk strategy, he simply said, “If you lose this game, you’ll take it with you to your (expletive) grave.” That was exactly how I felt at that moment. Every name had to be right. Every fact had to be right. If we spelled something wrong in a headline it would be there forever. If there ever was a day to not screw something up, this was the day.

I thought about that today when I found a copy of the New York Times’ correction on John McCain’s obituary:

TimesCorrections

That’s one heck of a long correction for a publication with the journalistic chops of the New York Times. It’s also hard to fathom that the staff didn’t have time to get this thing out from the files and really polish it up. McCain had been diagnosed with cancer back in 2017, and it wasn’t looking good for months. With that, someone probably should have figured it would be a good idea to really start working on this obituary.

(Most people of any significant societal distinction have an obituary on file at the NYT. Each time the person does something else of interest, it gets added to that file so the obit is as up to date as possible. When the person dies, papers like the Times just have to weave in the date, cause of death and age before sending it out to the world.)

I can give the paper a pass (sort of) on the family issue. A guy who is 81, you tend not to think, “I wonder if his mom or dad is still alive.” Plus, when it comes to survivors, there is always a risk of leaving someone off, no matter how hard you try to avoid the problem.

However, the other errors all come from facts that are at least 20 years old and pretty simple to verify. That hurts.

Rather than beat up on the Times, though, the goal here is to help you see some things you can take with you from this debacle. Here are four hints to help you avoid screwing up in a situation like this:

 

Beware of “-est” statements: The statement about fire on the Forrestal being the “deadliest” incident, provides you with a good lesson about how absolutism can get you in trouble. Absolutes are always interesting and yet difficult to prove in many occasions. This is why Oddity is an interest element and why things that are the first, last or only of their kind matter to people.

However, you need to make sure that you have something nailed down perfectly before you issue an “-est” statement. The “deadliest” attack. The “longest” game. The “greatest” comeback. Those things need to be quantified and verified. Any time you see an “-est” in a story you are editing or you include one in a story you are writing, make absolutely sure you are correct.

 

Assume everything is wrong. Fact check accordingly: When people write or edit, they often look at a statement and assume it to be true unless they can prove it false. If I told you that, “I have a 13-year-old daughter,” chances are, you’d think, “OK, that’s probably true.” However, if I told you, “I have a 101-year-old daughter,” you’re probably thinking, “There’s no way that’s true. I gotta check that out.”

The point is, we start from the assumption of “True unless provably false.” If you want to avoid mistakes when the chips are down, reverse that approach to your fact-checking behavior. Look at each element of a sentence and think, “That’s probably wrong. I need to check on it.” Examine each factual component of a story and think, “How could that totally screw me over by being wrong? I need to prove it’s right.”

I often espouse the Filak-ism that paranoia is my best friend, and that really applies here. Obviously, it would be great if you had time to look up every fact and check on every comma in every story this way, but you have to be practical in this. However, if it’s a “you’re going to take this to your (expletive) grave” -level assignment, the “wrong until proven right” approach works pretty well.

 

How you state something matters: The Jack Kemp error comes from someone not knowing the history of professional football in the United States. The AFL was an upstart league that formed in the 1960s and eventually merged with the NFL. Kemp was a quarterback for the Bills until the end of the 1969 season, the last season the two leagues remained separate under a merger agreement.

Had the obituary stated he played professionally for the Buffalo Bills, that would have worked. Had it said he was a professional football player, that would have been fine. However, weaving in that minor detail about the NFL created an error because of how it was stated.

When I taught sports writing, I provided students with statements to prove true or false and two of my favorites were:

  • “In the Open Era, which runs from 1968 to present, the person holding the most Wimbledon singles titles is Roger Federer with eight wins.”
  • “The team with the most NFL championships is the Pittsburgh Steelers, winners of six Super Bowls.”

The first one is something half of the students get wrong because they look up Federer, see he won eight singles titles, see no one above him on the list of winners for men and say it’s true. However, the word “person” isn’t synonymous with “men.” The athlete (or person) with the most is Martina Navratilova, who won nine singles titles.

The second statement has the same trappings of the Kemp situation when it comes to understanding the history of the game. The Steelers have won the most Super Bowls, with six victories. However the NFL was around long before the Super Bowl and titles go back to the 1920s. Thus the team with the most NFL championships is the Green Bay Packers, who won 13 league titles.

A similar thing happened in terms of phrasing during the 1999 Columbine High School shooting. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people and wounded 20 others before killing themselves. At the time, some reporters called it the “deadliest attack” at a school in U.S. history in some cases, which was inaccurate. It was the deadliest school shooting at that point, but the deadliest attack was an incident in Bath Township, Michigan, in 1927. A man there blew up a school, killing 44 people and injuring 58 others. Thus, “shooting” and “attack” were not interchangeable.

 

Ask for help: One of the many benefits of newsrooms is the presence of other people who know stuff. You might worry that asking for help or having someone look over your should could make you look stupid or weak. However, what’s a worse crime: Looking dumb in a newsroom (and spoiler alert- you won’t look like that when you ask for help) or looking dumb in the general public? If you don’t know something, ask. It really works.

One thought on “Four fact-checking tips inspired by the NYT’s four-error, 135-word correction on John McCain’s obituary

  1. Grant Barrett says:

    As someone who researches word histories, can I add something to the “-est” part? (I once mentioned this to Margalit Fox on an airplane, with hope that it would have effect, after they ran an obit of a man they credit with inventing the bundt cake pan, which he did not.) Any time an obituary wants to credit someone with having “coined” a word, don’t believe it. It’s almost never true that the person was the one who invented the word. It’s further confused because to coin a word can mean both “write or say a word for the first known recorded instance” or “write or say something memorable in an important or expressive public way.” It may be true that the person *made the word popular,* but that’s something else altogether. Usually just a few minutes in historical newspaper databases or with historical dictionaries can prove the claim false. So often it’s the family’s fault: they have the story wrong or they are already embellishing the legend of their loved one, but the obit writer should still check it out, as you say. (You can also throw in there as a no-no in the “-est” section when an obituary wants to say someone was the “first ever.”)

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