In Der Spiegel’s report on how their star reporter Claas Relotius got away with fabricating stories for years, Ullrich Fichtner writes, “Already, every text printed in DER SPIEGEL goes through a thorough fact-checking and vetting process to review the accuracy of every fact stated in an article.” But immediately after making this claim he demonstrates that is is not true (Where are the fact-checkers??) and indeed could not be true. After mentioning a few small facts that could be and were checked, he continues,
But the problems with Relotius’ articles relate not to details like that, but to his on-the-ground reporting. That work is based on the fundamental trust the editorial staff bestows on all journalists under their oversight. The fact-checking and research department at DER SPIEGEL is the journalist’s natural enemy — and that’s just how DER SPIEGEL founder Rudolf Augstein wanted it. But the department also assists with reporting, providing information and details while also seeking to prevent mistakes. Ultimately, the department is also working to put out the same product. The idea that a colleague would deliberately cheat is not part of everyday considerations in journalism. The honest effort to seek truth and veracity is the rule. Cheating is the exception.
There is simply no way to find out whether Relotius was telling the truth when he describes the music he heard playing in an abortion clinic in Mississippi. Could you, if you were a Der Spiegel fact-checker, even know whether he visited the abortion clinic at all? Perhaps you could, by demanding in advance that he photograph every place he visited when researching his story. But that’s quite a demand, and Fichtner is right to suggest that it would be hard, and probably counter-productive, to sustain such an adversarial relationship between reporters and fact-checkers. And it would be too expensive, as well as kinda creepy, to send fact-checkers along with reporters on their travels.
So Fichtner is right to say that when editors send reporters out they basically have to trust them to tell the truth. The need for trust cannot be eliminated from the equation. The problem posed by Relotius’s fabrications is basically insoluble.
But I do have a suggestion for Der Spiegel, and it’s based on this evisceration of Relotius’s story about Fergus Falls, Minnesota. The first thing to note is that Michele Anderson and Jake Krohn point to a great many factual errors in Relotius’s piece about their town that could have and should have been caught by fact-checkers. The second thing to note is that several of the claims he made in his story — for instance, that there was a sign at the town limits reading “Mexicans Keep Out” — are prima facie highly implausible and deserved some serious looking into.
But the third and most important thing to note is that none of the ridiculous things Relotius says about the residents of Fergus Falls would be implausible to an educated German — and here we get close to the heart of the matter, at least for me. Reading Fichtner’s postmortem I couldn’t help noticing that most of the Relotius stories that are almost wholly fictional concern the United States, and it seems highly likely that Relotius knew exactly what kinds of stories about this country would lull the fact-checkers to sleep: stories that confirmed all of their prejudices about the culturally limited, fearful, Bible-thumping yahoos who elected Trump and support capital punishment and oppose abortion. If he had written stories that challenged any of those stereotypes, no doubt the fact-checkers would immediately have roused themselves from their slumbers. But Relotius knew better than to do that: he spoon-fed them their own bigotries, and they slipped back into their snoozing. And so he was able to spend years just making up a bunch of crap and winning awards for doing it.
So my suggestion for the editors and fact-checkers of Der Spiegel is this: In the future, when one of your reporters starts smoothly murmuring in your ear precisely what you want to hear, immediately strive to awaken your comatose suspicions. You’ll need them.