Editor’s Le er
I year at The Walrus, our commitment to the accuracy of our reporting has taken on new urgency. In 2018, we extended the rigorous fact-checking process used in our print magazine to the journalism published on thewalrus.ca. We also joined the Trust Project, an association of international media outlets dedicated to promoting standards of transparency and objectivity. And, in a bid to combat misinformation circulating online, The Walrus launched thewalrus-factchecking. com, a special project dedicated to verifying articles published by other media outlets, claims by public gures, and even social-media posts.
These initiatives have arrived against a backdrop of heightened visibility for the work of fact checkers everywhere — a result of concerns about fake news and attacks on the media by public gures. Since the election of Donald Trump, Daniel Dale, the Toronto Star’s Washington bureau chief, has become the US president’s self-appointed factchecker-in-chief, with almost half a million Twitter followers. Facebook, now one of the biggest distributors of news, has announced that it will work with fact-checking organizations worldwide to verify content on its platforms. The Lifespan of a Fact, a play dramatizing the work of a fact checker, starring Daniel Radcli e, recently opened on Broadway.
To those who have worked as fact checkers, the current love for the profession is unfamiliar, if overdue. The tradition of fact-checking — the process of verifying all kinds of information, from the spelling of a street name to the relationship between married people (in this issue, we spent a fair bit of time asking hunters to con rm that the picture on p. 64 is of caribou, not seal meat) — is one of the least glamorous, but necessary, aspects of journalism.
It’s also a lot of work. Fact-checking a simple article can yield hundreds of super cially banal questions. But, as I learned when I was an intern twenty years ago, the practice teaches you much of what you need to know about writing non- ction. It teaches accuracy and ethics, it teaches you how to build an argument, and it teaches you the kinds of basic things to remember to ask in an interview that are horrible to get wrong in print, such as the spelling of a subject’s name.
This January/february double issue re ects the range of our fact checkers’ e orts. For “A Liberal’s Last Stand,” writer Curtis Gillespie travelled to Hungary to interview Michael Ignatie — whose position at the Budapest-based Central European University nds him pinned between the institution, founded by George Soros, and the authoritarian rule of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán. The feature required us to look into everything from the legal rami cation of Orbán’s obstructive education laws to whether Budapest’s Kelet Café is on the eastern or southern side of the city.
Sometimes checkers are assigned stories about well-known, extensively reported events where even the most basic details remain di cult to con rm. This was the case with “Looking Back at Rwanda,” a collection of harrowing tales of survivors compiled by Christine Magill to commemorate the twenty- fth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. In the case of tragedies where few eyewitnesses survive, we often consult multiple corroborating sources (in this case, Human Rights Watch and o cial United Nations reports).
We also fact-check ction. For Elise Levine’s short story “This Wicked Tongue,” which is set in the Middle Ages, our fact checker sourced illuminated manuscripts and a nineteenth-century text, “The Birds of Old English Literature,” to con rm the setting’s fauna. Factual accuracy in ction is at the author’s discretion; in our experience, even the knowledge of what would be accurate o ers ction writers more exciting narrative choices (and it gets us fewer letters from hu y ornithologists).
Fact-checking is not a project born of grandstanding or pedantic joy — although it often feels like that when you’ve been caught by one of our fact checkers exaggerating the size of the dessert you ate. We pursue this tradition because history shows that fact — not speculation, political propaganda, or doctored video — is the basis for informed discussion. It’s long been said the world is getting smaller; here at The Walrus, and elsewhere, the notion of what “Canadianness” is, the notion of what makes a “Canadian” story, and the notion of where one group’s concerns end and another’s begin are expanding all the time. If 2018 was the year of the fact, it is our hope that 2019 will be a year of context and understanding.
— Jessica Johnson