Monday, March 05, 2007

Fact-Checking Online and Off

William Shawn, the fabled editor of The New Yorker, was fanatical about fact-checking writers down to the smallest detail. For lesser editors of his time, like me, he was a role model for demanding accuracy in reporting.

So it comes as an irony that a 24-year-old college dropout posing as a professor of religion slipped through The New Yorker’s truth screen in an article about Wikipedia, the Web’s prime source for encyclopedic knowledge, and was exposed by readers last week.

As a frequent user of Wikipedia to check names and dates, I am always been haunted by the possibility of error and, where it matters, double-check with primary sources.

But Wikipedia is a noble effort to bring coherence to the Web, and The New Yorker is still the gold standard for magazine reporting.

Let Shawn have the last word. In the only interview he ever gave (as far as I know) in Women’s Wear Daily (July 1968), he summed up his editing standards: “as close an approximation of objectivity as we could humanly manage, straightforwardness, thoroughness, fairness, clarity, truthfulness and accuracy.”

“There has been something constant, as well,” he added, “in the tone of the magazine—an attempt, perhaps, to hang on to sanity and reasonableness, no matter how turbulent or fevered or lunatic the world became.”

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