Just the Facts, Ma’am

Those of us who watched the original Dragnet will remember Joe Friday telling people he wanted “Just the facts.” This stresses the importance of facts, and the importance of accuracy of facts, in the processing of information. Why do I mention this? The New York Times had an interesting article today about the changes at Time, Inc. due to the changing media market in the world. Buried in this article was the following paragraph:

People has one of the last vestiges of the classic newsmagazine reporting structure, in which several correspondents send files to a writer in New York, where stories are fact-checked by yet another department. The new model, which is standard at most news organizations, will be for one person to report, write and fact-check the article — much as Simon Perry, the London bureau chief, did with People’s take this week on Kate Middleton, Prince William’s girlfriend.

Now I have no problem with having a single reporter report and write the article: that’s much more efficient. My concern is having the same reporter that reports/writes the article being the one responsible for fact checking it. After all, those of us in the software world know all-too-well the risks of having the software developer be the one that reads the code to find bugs or errors. They are too close to story; they will overlook things that are “obvious”.

If I want reporting that is not fact checked, I’ll turn to the blogosphere. Those of us who write journals (for the most part) do cursory fact checking (perhaps as we build our links), and then fix the article as readers might point out mistakes.* Some of us make more mistakes than others. But when I read the reporting of a newsmagazine, I want it to be above the level of assurance I get from People: I want independent fact checking.

Those of us know from working with NASA that “better, faster, cheaper” is, at best, a two-out-of-three proposition. I fear that Time, Inc., for all their reporting on NASA, never picked up on that lesson.

* And yes, there is a mistake in the post, that might have been not caught had I not added links and done fact checking. Specifically, Jack Webb as Joe Friday never says “Just the facts” in any episode of the original Dragnet series. What he actually said in an early episode was “All we want are the facts”. Ed O’Neill, in the horrible Dragnet remake in 2003, did utter the line. Little good it did him!