Fact-Checking and the CUNY-Atlantic Debacle

On Tuesday last week the Atlantic published an article highlighting changes at the City University of New York, a college system that, in the view of the authors, was increasingly bifurcated. Wealthier white and Asian students tended to go to the top CUNY colleges, and poorer black and Hispanics tended to be relegated to the less selective community colleges run by the system. As a result, according to the original headline, “…High Achievers Have No Place To Go.”

And then it got complicated. This came to my attention later in the week. I had written a piece here about the article. Jay Hershenson, vice chancellor for university relations for CUNY, called me up and demanded a retraction. The Atlantic article contained significant factual errors and this needed to be addressed immediately, he said. I was surprised, but Hershenson was right.

At various points between Tuesday and the end of the week the Atlantic made numerous edits to the piece, changing some of the focus, removing the anecdotal lede, and altering the headline, which now reads “What It Takes to Get Into New York City’s Best Public Colleges.”

The magazine has apologized, sort of, and explained that:

This article has been significantly revised post-publication to correct for factual errors in the original version.

That’s not all:

An earlier version of this article led with a personal college-admissions story that we have since determined to be insufficiently relevant to the remainder of the article. An earlier correction also inaccurately portrayed the order of events that led the student to his ultimate decision about where to enroll in college. As well, our original display copy suggested that top-performing students are having trouble gaining acceptance to all CUNY schools; in fact, this story is about their difficulty in gaining entry to the top five CUNY colleges: Baruch, Queens, Brooklyn, City, and Hunter. We regret these errors. Additionally, this article originally included quotations in its introduction and conclusion, since removed in the reframing of those sections, from David Jones, the president and CEO of the nonprofit organization the Community Service Society, who is also the chairman of the board of the Nation Institute. The Nation Institute helped support research for this article, a relationship that was fully disclosed.

And furthermore:

Students who enter CUNY community colleges have a 8 percent chance of graduating after six years, rather than over an indefinite time period.

It was, as Hershenson put it to me, like the Rolling Stone rape story all over again.

CUNY

That’s debatable, but it’s pretty serious.

What seems surprising about this is that the authors were not exactly inexperienced. LynNell Hancock is a professor at Columbia Journalism School. Meredith Kolodner is a staff writer at the Hechinger Report. Both are longtime education journalists.

How did this happen? Well the Nation Institute thing is pretty hard to explain, but most of this just seems to come down to errors in fact-checking.

Every journalist fears this. When you’ve worked so hard on a story and went through such work on a piece to get all of the details right, but then you got something really, really wrong. But if that comes about after your story has already been published the piece basically turns into garbage.

I’ve been responsible for something like this once. It’s humiliating and it often ruins the relationship between a journalist and a publication, but it comes down to time and money, which are in pretty sort supply in journalism today.

Magazines of ideas publish articles about complicated topics, often involving statistical research, numerous difficult interviews, and extensive rewriting. This is part of the reason these pieces are unique and original, but it’s also how errors are introduced into copy, and how reputations are ruined and magazines get sued. Because of this publications often perform a line-by-line fact-check of a piece before it goes to publication.

At certain magazines, particularly Mother Jones and the New Yorker, that means every single line in a piece is verified with a primary source document and every person interviewed for the article gets a call from the fact-checker for quote verification. That means a reader knows if the article says lobbyist spent $325.00 taking a politician to dinner the lobbyist did not actually spend $297.50. It also means if it says the lobbyist was wearing a pink shirt he was not wearing a yellow one.

But publications don’t always do this anymore. Indeed, with smaller editorial budgets and the 24-hour news cycle, it’s increasingly rare. This is particularly the case with web-only pieces, where the turnaround time and relative ease of damage control is such that many publications barely bother with fact-checking anymore.

If the story looks good and you want to get it out quickly before someone else reports it often a publication will just speed up the whole process. Certainly re-interviewing a subject and chasing down primary source documents to verify the accuracy of “the order of events that led the student to his ultimate decision about where to enroll in college” is rare. It’s common just to do a quick check of proper names and then put the thing up.

The real harm with sloppy fact-checking is that an error—and fact-checkers catch lots of them, in drafts of really good pieces by really wonderful journalists—can effectively kill a piece and, if the article is part of a trend or theme, eliminate any chance of anyone addressing the real substance of the story.

Even after the Atlantic issued its correction it still seems the central point of the CUNY story was correct. A system designed to provide New York’s striving working class students with an affordable college education has become a two-tiered system that operates very differently. That might be something worth exploring.

But now nothing’s going to happen with that, nothing at all. For all the impact it’s going to have, the authors might not have bothered to write the piece at all.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer