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Fact Checking

Most days I read my local newspaper and the Wall Street Journal. And most days I find editorial errors in one or both papers. The errors often distract me from my reading. Some are obvious grammatical and spelling errors. But the errors I find most bothersome are factual errors.  These kind of errors cause me to wonder if there are other errors in the paper. Factual errors matter because if people make decisions based on information in the news, then erroneous information can cause poor decisions, especially in the Wall Street Journal.

The potential factual error in the January 13, 2015 Wall Street Journal was in an article about exercise, so no investment decisions were based on the article. But if the location of the park mentioned in the article was incorrect, was the information about U.S. bank earnings in another section correct?

Fact checking is difficult for editors, because it requires specialized knowledge or research into diverse topics. Fact checking takes time. However, the article in question was a feature about an individual, and if this person had carefully read the article draft, he could have corrected the error. Having a source review content is the first and most important step in fact checking.

Specialized knowledge helped me question a fact in the article because I am familiar with one of the two cities mentioned in the article. The person profiled has homes in Fort Worth and Seattle. The article asserted: When in Fort Worth, he walks from 30 to 90 minutes around the steep hills of Lincoln Park four to five days a week. The assertion caused me to pause in my reading. I know for certain that Seattle has a Lincoln Park that is hilly because I have walked around the beautiful park many times. I wondered if Fort Worth also had a hilly Lincoln Park. I did some fact checking on the Fort Worth parks department website (yes, like many cities, they do have a Lincoln Park). Then I looked up the park on Google maps, zooming in to the earth view. Lincoln Park in Fort Worth is a small neighborhood park, two blocks square, with a creek, some trees, but no hills, and probably only 15 minutes of exercise potential. If I was the editor overseeing this article, I would have sent it back to the writer suggesting that she confirm the location of Lincoln Park with the person profiled in the article. It is possible that my knowledge of parks and fact checking is inaccurate and there is a large, hilly Lincoln Park in the Fort Worth area. However, I also checked nearby Dallas for a Lincoln Park and did not find one. This particular fact probably only bothered people familiar with Fort Worth or Seattle.

Fact checking is the part of editorial work that still needs the human brain. At some point in the future, along with spell check and grammar check, there may be an artificial intelligence app that does fact checking. But for now, newspapers and other media platforms need actual editors to perform this essential step in the process. Because accuracy matters to this reader.

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