You can’t fact-check the future
Just because we don’t like an opinion doesn’t mean it’s wrong
If something doesn’t sound right, we question it. This is dozens of times a day.
A recent column by Hamilton writer Ryan McGreal on the website Raise the Hammer declared The Hamilton Spectator “no longer factchecks op-ed submissions” after a change in policy.
I am aware of no policy change. This newspaper, like most others, has never employed fact-checkers the way magazines have, but it is incorrect to claim we don’t vet submissions. Indeed, that is what editors do. Granted, like most other newspapers, we have fewer editors today, but we do not print obvious falsehoods. And we correct our errors.
Like all newspapers, we check dates, figures, events, addresses, personalities, titles, allegations, the spelling of names ...
If something doesn’t sound right, we question it. This is done dozens of times a day.
As a former magazine writer, I know the difference between editing and fact-checking:
If a writer says “it was a dark and stormy night,” a newspaper editor accepts it, unless the story also describes a luncheon meeting on a patio.
A magazine fact-checker, on the other hand, will check the phase of the moon (was it really that dark?) search meteorological reports (how much precipitation?), call the weather office (was it a bona fide storm? What was wind speed?), and even ask others to verify it (did you hear any thunder?).
If a writer says someone was driving “a silver Chevy,” an editor accepts that as the truth, whereas a fact-checker will research the make and model: Did you mean “Heather Grey?” Or “Gunmetal Ice?”
Yes, it can be painful and sometimes ridiculous. Such a fact-checker would have a field day with the piece by McGreal, a writer and editor for whom I have a great respect.
Neither a fact-checker, nor an editor, however, can check everything.
For example, most editors accept that 97 per cent of scientists believe humans cause climate change, but we don’t necessarily discount those who question assumptions.
Nor would we necessarily ignore politicians who oppose adding fluoride to tap water, no matter how wacky it might seem to us.
McGreal’s real beef is our decision to print opinion submissions opposing LRT for Hamilton, articles he describes collectively as “a painful mess of blatantly false claims, argumentative fallacies and downright bad writing.”
It’s worth remembering Galileo was tried by the Inquisition and imprisoned for similar blatantly false claims and argumentative fallacies. He said planets revolved around the sun, when all other scientists insisted everything revolved around the Earth.
The Spectator has officially, frequently and vociferously supported light rail transit for Hamilton from the beginning. I personally endorse this $1-billion project, but I take the long view.
It is a virtual certainty that in the short term, LRT will be viewed, sometimes legitimately, as a financial, economic, political and social debacle — as all megaprojects inevitably are. The triumph may not be realized for years; the eventual payoff never fully understood.
Meanwhile, it is as conceivable LRT will be obsolete and old-fashioned by the time it’s completed as it will be the wise saviour of our developmental, economic and environmental woes.
No amount of fact-checking can see into that future.
Paul Berton is editor-in-chief of The Hamilton Spectator and thespec.com. You can reach him at 905-526-3482 or firstname.lastname@example.org