When you pick up our newspaper, we want you to be able to trust us that we’re giving you the straight story: that the quote from an elected official is accurate, that we’re giving you the big picture context for stories, that the dog we mention wasn’t really a cat.
It sounds like an obvious practice, and indeed it’s the principle that underpins traditional journalism, but in this age of social media and blurred lines, it bears repeating: yes, we fact-check.
In essence, fact-checking is taking the extra time to verify whether something is totally true. For instance, we spoke with Kyle Jones for this edition’s cover story on the Grizzly Creek and Pine Gulch fires. Kyle told us that he was an eyewitness to the start of the fire while floating along the Colorado River: we had no reason to disbelieve him, really. But we have a responsibility to our readers to make sure that we weren’t being misled.
Fact-checking Kyle’s story meant taking an hour to check his social media to see if he had photos from the float, checking to see if any of his friends reported the same thing. We checked his photos to make sure they weren’t old or from another fire. We called the White River National Forest to see if they could confirm that Kyle’s car had been stranded at the Grizzly Creek Trailhead.
It all checked out like we thought it would, but doing this sort of time-consuming work in the background is part of our obligation to verify facts before we pass them on to you.
As a newspaper, we always want you to know we’re vouching for the truth of what we’re running in these pages. We’re not always perfect, so we rely on our readers to keep us honest and informed by letting us know if something doesn’t ring true.
Fact-checking can be as straightforward as asking “is this assertion true or false?” Those sorts of things, happily, can usually be corrected with a quick Google check or a phone call.
Things can get less clear when we are dealing with quotations or opinion pieces.
Opinion pieces are usually written to persuade readers, not necessarily inform them. Facts might be taken out of context or “cherry-picked” to support the writer’s point of view in ways that would be totally unethical for a journalist to do.
Here at the Moab Sun News, our opinion content is confined to our letters to the editor section, our “The View” column, and a handful of occasional reprinted opinion pieces from the High Country News and the New York Times. Especially as a local community newspaper, the voices we’re able to showcase in these columns are a deep pleasure to publish: funny, thoughtful and important viewpoints that highlight the diversity of our community.
However, it’s a concern that studies have shown that a large proportion of newspapers’ readers don’t notice the difference between journalism and opinion content. Nearly three in 10 readers said they were unfamiliar with the difference between an editorial and news story, according to a report from the Media Insight Project, an initiative of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
That leaves newspapers in a bit of a moral quandary on two things: how do we identify content so readers know that it’s someone’s opinion and not a verified piece of journalism? And should opinion pieces, including letters to the editor, be fact-checked?
On the first question, we’re still figuring out how to make sure that our content is labeled clearly both in print and online. This is a first step.
The second answer is much clearer for us: it is our policy to fact-check opinion pieces, including letters to the editor.
We think it’s important for readers to know that if any writer is stating a fact in our publication, we have checked that fact out to make sure it’s verified. After all, people are certainly entitled to their opinions, but not to their own facts.
In almost every case, we’ve received gratitude when we’ve emailed someone who has written a letter to the editor to let them know that, for instance, it was a city ordinance that made them furious and not a county ordinance.
Sometimes “the right thing to do” isn’t clear cut, but we’ll continue to communicate with you, our readers, about how we’re handling opinion content. It would be unethical for us to simply throw up our hands and say that a commitment to bringing you the truth is just too hard for us.
And to everyone who has shared their opinions with us in these pages in the past and may in the future: thank you for your voice. It’s an honor every week.