Chapter 10: Organizing the newsroom for better and accurate investigative reporting
It began with a cardboard box full of newspaper clippings. In 1947, Rudolf Augstein, the founder and publisher of Der Spiegel, mandated that his publication should gather and maintain an archive of previously published work.
That box soon grew to become an archive spanning hundreds, then thousands of meters of shelves. Newspapers, magazines and other news media were catalogued, along with original documents from government departments and other sources. Augstein praised his archive, which he said “can conjure up the most extravagant information.” He died in 2002.
More than any other republisher in Germany, Augstein believed in the power and value of maintaining an archive, and in the importance of applying it to a fact-checking process.
Up to the late 1980s, Spiegel’s archive was purely paper based. Beginning in the 1990s, the classic archives expanded into the virtual space. Today, the archive adds 60,000 new articles each week in its custom Digital Archive System (Digas). This information is collected from over 300 sources reviewed on a regular basis, which includes the entire national German press as well as several international publications. Digas currently stores more than 100 million text files and 10 million illustrations.
From an archive to a documentation department
A mistake led Der Spiegel to the realization that fact-checking is necessary. When an archivist pointed out a serious error in an article that had already been printed, Augstein answered gruffly, “Well, check that in the future earlier, then.“
From that point forward, fact-checking became a part of the duties of archive employees. In June 1949, Spiegel issued guidelines to all its journalists that outlined the necessity that every fact be checked. The guidelines read in part:
Spiegel must contain more personal, more intimate and more background information than the daily press does …
All news, information and facts that Spiegel uses and publishes must be correct without fail. Each piece of news and each fact must be checked thoroughly before it is passed on to the news staff. All sources must be identified. When in doubt, it is better not to use a piece of information rather than to run the risk of an incorrect report.
Hans D. Becker, the magazine’s managing editor in the 1950s, described the change from a traditional archive to a documentation department.
“Originally, the news library was only supposed to collect information (mostly in the form of press clippings),” he said. “What started as collecting on the dragnet principle imperceptibly became information-gathering through research. Amidst the ‘chaos of the battlefield’ of a newsroom, collecting and researching information for use in reporting imperceptibly became the exploitation of what was collected and gathered to prove what was claimed …”
How Spiegel does fact-checking today
The Dok, as we call it, is today organized into sections, called “referats,” that correspond to the various desks in the news departments, such as politics, economy, culture, science, etc. It employs roughly 70 “documentation journalists.” These are specialists who often possess a doctorate in their respective fields, and include biologists, physicists, lawyers, economists, MBAs, historians, scholars of Islam, military experts and more.
They are charged with checking facts and with supporting our journalists by providing relevant research. As soon as the author’s manuscript is edited, the page proof is transferred to the relevant Dok-Referat. Then the fact-checking starts.
Spiegel has very specific and detailed guidelines for fact-checking. This process ensures we apply the same standard to all work, and helps ensure we do not overlook key facts or aspects of a story. Dok-Referats use the same markings on manuscripts, creating a level of consistency that ensures adherence to our standards.
This approach can be applied to any story, and is particularly useful in investigative work, which must meet the highest standards.
Some of the key elements of our guidelines:
Any fact that is to be published will be checked to see if it is correct on its own and in context, employing the resources at hand and dependent on the time available.
Every verifiable piece of information will be underlined.
Standardized marks will be used to denote statements as correct, incorrect, not verifiable, etc.
Correct facts and figures will be checked off. If corrections are necessary, they will be noted in red ink in the margin, using standard proofreading marks.
The source of factual corrections and quotations must be given.
Corrections accepted by the author(s) will be checked off, the others will be marked n.ü. (not accepted).
When fact-checking a manuscript, other and if possible more accurate sources than the author‘s sources should be used.
A statement is considered verified only if confirmed by reliable sources or experts.
If a piece of research contradicts an author’s statement, the author must be notified of the contradiction during the discussion of the manuscript. If a fact is unverifiable, the author must also be notified.
A journalist’s source who is the object of an article may be contacted only with permission from the author. (In practice, we often speak with sources to check facts.)
Complex passages will be double-checked by the documentation department specialized in the subject matter.
Sometimes the limited time available means that priorities must be set. In such cases, facts that are the clear responsibility of the fact-checker must be checked first, particularly:
- Are the times and dates correct?
- Does the text contradict itself?
- Are the names and offices/jobs correct?
- Are the quotations correct (in wording and in context)?
- How current and trustworthy are the sources used?
The above list represents the most critical elements to be verified in an article when there is limited time for fact-checking. Newsrooms that do not have a similar documentation department should emphasize that reporters and editors double-check all of these items in any story prior to publication.
Fact-checking starts with comparing a story draft with the research materials provided by the author. The fact-checker then seeks to verify the facts and assertions by gathering additional sources that are independent of each other. For crucial passages, the checker examines a wide variety of sources in order to examine what is commonly accepted and believed and what is a more subjective or biased point of view. They determine what is a matter of fact and what is controversial or, in some cases, a myth.
We use our Digas database to surface relevant and authoritative sources. It’s also the responsibility of every Spiegel fact-checker to study the relevant papers, journals, studies, blogs, etc. in their field, daily. This ensures that they have current knowledge on relevant topics, and that they know the trustworthiness of different sources.
This form of domain expertise is essential when evaluating the credibility of sources. However, there are some general guidelines that can be followed when evaluating sources:
Prefer original documents. If an academic study is quoted, obtain the original, full text. If company earnings are cited, obtain their financials. Do not reply on press summaries and press releases when the original document can be obtained.
Prefer sources that delineate between facts and opinion, and that supply facts in their work.
Prefer sources that clearly indicate the source of their information, as this enables you to verify their work. (Media outlets or other entities that overly rely on anonymous sources should be treated with caution.)
Beware of sources that make factual errors about basic facts, or that confuse basic concepts about a subject matter.
Examples of checked manuscripts
After an article has been checked at Spiegel, the documentarist and the author discuss possible corrections until they agree on the final version. The author makes the corrections to the manuscript. The fact-checker checks the corrections a second time and also any other changes that may have been made in the meantime.
Accuracy is the basic prerequisite for good journalism and objective reportage. Journalists make mistakes, intended or not. Mistakes damage the most valuable asset of journalism: credibility. That is, after all, the quality to which journalists refer most frequently to distinguish their journalism.
One method to reduce the probability of mistakes is verification; that is, checking facts before publication.
A 2008 thesis produced at the University of Hamburg counted all the corrections made by the documentation department in a single issue of Der Spiegel. The final count was 1,153. Even if we exclude corrections related to spelling and style, there were still 449 mistakes and 400 imprecise passages, of which more than 85 percent were considered to be relevant or very relevant.