Fake news is 'journalistic warfare' says New Yorker's chief fact-checker

This story is part of a series on fact checking by WikiTribune reporter Harry Ridgewell: others are on the rise of fact-checking in response to the “fake news” debate, a guide to fact-checking groups, plus how to spot fake images and news. Please add to or TALK about them.

A widespread “disenchantment” with modern life has fueled the rise of fake news, as mass misinformation has been weaponized into “journalistic warfare,” according to a man who has devoted his career to the pursuit of robust journalism.

Peter Canby is a senior editor and head of fact-checking at The New Yorker magazine, a publication renowned for its rigorous fact-checking processes (Columbia Journalism Review). He spoke to WikiTribune about public cynicism of the media, “crazy fake news outlets” and outrage over penguins.

“People are disenchanted with the way their lives have evolved [and] … there is an education system in this country that’s not what it used to be,” says Canby. “If you have an educated, literate population, my guess is they’re going to gravitate to more sensible debates and when you lose that, then you have the problems that arise from fake news.”

He believes the media now needs reporters who can write in a way that resonates with everyone. “My feeling is that there are a lot of people who feel in this country … that their lives have gotten worse,” says Canby. “We, as a nation, need to create a dialogue that allows people to feel involved in ways that make their lives better.”

Disappointment feeds disenchantment

Many Americans may be looking for ways to explain why their lives seem to have become more difficult over recent decades. Between 1973 and 2013, American productivity rose by about 74 percent, but for 80 percent of the private-sector workforce, hourly wages only increased 8.2 percent, according to U.S. think tank the Economic Policy Institute.

Canby believes many Americans have turned away from traditional media establishments because they feel they no longer represent their lives. “They turn against the conventional politics and they reach out for something – like Trump.”

Facebook is now a source of news for 45 percent of Americans, according to 2017 research by the Pew Research Center, a non-partisan U.S. think tank. The social media site has recently been the object of intense criticism for its role in the distribution of fake news, including Russian-funded misinformation designed to influence U.S. politics.

‘It’s journalistic warfare’ – Peter Canby, The New Yorker

“I don’t mean just by the Russians, but the Russians have done very well at exploiting our own somewhat crazy fake news outlets … and there is the degree to which the Russians have been feeding toxic stories into our system, which are then amplified intentionally,” says Canby. “It’s journalistic warfare,” he says. “[It’s] a source of conflict between those who see journalism as evidence- and logic-based, and those who see it as a means of manipulation.”

Even if Facebook and Google find and implement ways of preventing the dissemination of misinformation, Canby says people will find new ways to get round them. However, he does think that “ultimately, better ideas tend to prevail.”

peter canby a senior editor and the head of fact-checking at The New Yorker
Peter Canby – a senior editor and the head of fact-checking at The New Yorker (Copyright owned by Peter Canby)

The New Yorker is famous for its fact-checking prowess. Canby’s staff aims to speak to every person mentioned in a story, even if they’re not quoted. For Luke Mogelson’s The Desperate Battle to Destroy ISIS, for example, fact-checkers called all 42 people mentioned within the 17,000-word piece.

Their process goes far beyond checking names and dates, Canby says. “We also look at the way stories are reported. We look at fairness. We look at balance. We look at the relationship of information to where it came from and the way an argument we have is represented [appears] to the outside world. Those are more complicated editorial takes on the fact-checking process.”

Despite automation being the new fashion in fact-checking, Canby doesn’t think automation can achieve all of these things.

Yet Canby says it is far quicker to fact-check than it used to be, despite increasing amounts of online misinformation (academic study). “Now, we have things that we turn around in four or five days that, when I started, we would have probably spent a month on,” he says.

Objectivity and neutrality

Speaking multiple languages is very useful for fact-checkers, Canby says, and his department is fluent in a total of eight or nine languages. Canby says while “we’re perfectly capable of hiring a translator … [speaking multiple languages] represents an ability to see the world through different lenses,” which is helpful for remaining objective and neutral.

Though the internet is an efficient tool for verification, Canby says it is no substitute for asking the source of a claim exactly where they got their information.

Despite The New Yorker’s rigorous checks, the magazine is not immune to mistakes. One cartoon seemingly depicting a penguin telling a girlfriend’s parents that “actually I prefer the term Arctic-American,” drew scorn, Canby says.

“We got outraged letters from penguin specialists around the world pointing out that penguins only live in Antarctica, not in the Arctic.”

Yet Canby thinks it’s important that publications also include humor, saying: “I think if you corner people that they tend to dig their heels in, and if you seduce them with humor and cartoons the way we do, then it becomes something more: a palatable package.”

This story is part of a series on fact-checking by WikiTribune reporter Harry Ridgewell: others are on the rise of fact checking in response to the “fake news” debate, a guide to fact-checking groups, plus how to spot fake images and news. Please add to or TALK about them.

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