For the Mainstream Media -- A Humble Suggestion
Yesterday’s kerfluffle on the captured action figure brings up again the problems the mainstream media (MSM) has had with fact-checking in general, especially since they’ve gotten into the 24 hours news business. (Here’s a good timeline on the “Captured Cody” saga.) Whether it’s basing a news story on obviously forged documents, failure to understand the military (my pet peeve: calling a non-commissioned officer an "officer"), or running columns on supposed blogosphere fact-checking deficiencies that aren’t themselves fact-checked, this has led many to believe that the MSM has let its collective political biases affect its accuracy. While this sounds like a likely scenario (there’s lots of circumstantial evidence to support this), I disagree that this is the underlying problem.
One of the best and, I believe, most accurate quotes I ever heard in the Navy goes something like this: "Never attribute to malice that which can be ascribed to sheer stupidity." I think the main problem is that reporters in general, with their BA in journalism and a minor in cultural anthropology, just aren’t very smart. Or, if they are smart, they have a combination of naïveté and lack of common sense that makes them susceptible to believing stupid things, and their job allows them to broadcast their stupidity to the world. (Obviously, there are some exceptions. In the submarine world, Bob Hamilton of The New London Day is a smart, common-sense reporter who rarely suffers from journalistic stupidity.)
So what can the MSM do? Assuming they actually want to fix the problem, I’ve come up with a cheap, easy potential solution that incorporates ideals that helped make America great. Simply put, the problem right now is that the MSM makes lots of mistakes, and bloggers quickly find, and ridicule, these mistakes. Therefore, it makes sense that a media company would want to find those mistakes before they get out in print. To try to prevent this from happening, media companies currently employ fact-checkers. Who are these fact checkers? I have no idea, but I think it would be not too much of a stretch to think that this would be an entry-level position at a big media company, filled by some kid fresh out of college with his or her BA in some mildly interesting but otherwise useless social science. They couldn’t tell a tank from a Humvee, and everything they know of the real world, outside of the soup kitchen they volunteered at in college, comes from whatever movies they may have watched. Meanwhile, colleges are graduating thousands of smart, common-sense type people who understand how the physical world works, and therefore can get a good paying job at companies who actually build things; we call them engineers. These people are smart, but they still don’t know how people really think. They learn this through experience, by which time they’re making lots of money, and wouldn’t dream of working at some newspaper for $50K/year. This leaves the media company in a pickle; how can they get smart people to check their facts quickly, without it costing them an arm and a leg? Well, they need to find someone who has proven they can find mistakes the media has made, understands current technology, and would be available quickly.
What the big media companies need to do is co-opt the proven bloggers – bring them inside. There are lots of bloggers out there who have proven themselves to be generally level-headed and knowledgeable, and have an interest in media accuracy. Some of them probably work from their homes, spending hours in front of the computer. The MSM could identify the smarter bloggers, sign them to a monthly contract for a few thousand a month, enforce a non-disclosure agreement, and tell them to respond to rough copy they’re sent with a critique and suggested improvements within an hour or so. A good source of these potential fact-checkers could be retired military bloggers. A few thousand dollars a month, combined with their military retirement checks, could be enough for them to make it a full-time job. They know the world, they know the military and war (a big source of news stories), they’re generally engineers of some sort, and they’ve proven to be reliable. (Note: This isn’t a “position wanted” ad – they couldn’t afford me, and I haven’t proven myself, besides.) Throw in a weekly on-line column, and I predict there’d be a few dozen people who would jump at the chance. With the centralization of media going on, a few dozen smart people would probably be enough.
Update: Instapundit discusses another example of "journalistic ignorance" that a fact-checker with a basic understanding of the physical world could have caught.
Update 1329 02 Feb: Ninme offers her thoughts on the subject here, and as usual they're much better thought out, and more in-depth, than mine.
Edited 0823 05 Feb to correct "affect" vs. "effect" and "its' " vs. "its" issues; as I've said, I'm an engineer, not an English major, so I appreciate any help my readers give me.