Canadian Magazine Industry News
11 March 2009,    
Guest column: How fact-checking sets magazines apart from the often-erroneous crowd
With the glut of media options available to today’s consumer, what makes magazines special? In a guest column for MastheadOnline, freelance editor and writer Allan Britnell proposes that the not-so-heralded practice of fact-checking is what sets our medium apart from the not-so-trustworthy world of blogs, Twitter feeds, even newspapers and books. So why, Britnell asks, hasn't the industry put more effort into spreading the word about checking the facts?

In an era of almost constant doom-and-gloom about media in general and magazines in particular, I think we should embrace fact checking as the thing that sets us apart from the often-erroneous crowd.

Yet, as far as I can tell, fact checking is a process that the magazine industry seems happy to keep quiet about. At the end of one recent interview, when I mentioned that a fact-checker would be in touch, the source I was talking to said, “What a great idea!” It’s certainly not the first time I’ve had such a reaction. And it’s always news when I mention the process of checking in small talk with non-industry friends and acquaintances.

One of the issues facing our industry is how to justify our relevance with a media-saturated audience that, increasingly, has grown up never having had to pay for content (music, movies, or reading material). Yet for all the factually challenged tabloids, blogs, and Twitter writers out there, there’s also a growing desire for informed, accurate information. The scientific and academic communities in particular have been advocating for a means of recognizing credible, accurate stories, reports, and websites.

We – or at least, some of us – already have a built-in credibility process. Let’s let our readers know about it. To my mind, having the time to fact-check copy (and, of course, actually making the effort to do it) could be what makes magazines worth paying for, even when everyone else is giving away their content for free.

I propose an industry-wide campaign to promote fact checking. In short, we’d be letting readers know that because it’s been cross-checked, the content of a magazine is likely more reliable than what they’ll find in most websites, newspapers, or books.

The cornerstone of the campaign would be a check-mark logo that participating magazines could put on their covers (along the lines of Magazines Canada’s “Genuine Canadian Magazine” icon). A coordinated campaign of house ads, perhaps under the tagline, “We only write what’s right,” would explain in more detail what the logo – and fact checking – means. To promote the campaign’s launch, a coinciding series of editorials could further explain the process, and mention the names of other participating publications.

Obviously, a set of standards would need to be established. Does double-checking the spelling of source names and spot-checking the odd factoid count? To me, no. I would argue that substantively checking all editorial content should be the benchmark. But working out the details is for another day.

So, MastheadOnline readers, do you think there’s something to this idea? It certainly seems more proactive than just letting our well-written, beautifully designed, portable packages of targeted content go the way of the buggy whip.

Allan Britnell
is a regular contributor to several Canadian magazines including
Canadian Home Workshop, Cottage Life, Harrowsmith Country Life and Homemakers. He has worked as a freelance checker for Cottage Life, Chatelaine, Toro and others since 1996 and  first got the bug checking most of the content in the Summer 1996 Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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— Allan Britnell
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Wow, Torstar really seems to be on a mission to bankrupt one magazine after another....
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Full of terrific information, Thanks!...
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