The best obtainable version of the truth

In this season of light, the constant attacks from the White House and elsewhere against news organizations are disconcerting. While news reports can be wrong, no reputable newspaper or network makes it their business to publish “fake” news. A reporter who repeatedly gets the story wrong will soon be looking for another job. And when errors happen, however embarrassing, they are corrected as quickly as the news cycle allows.

Yet many consumers seem unaware of the steps a publication, even one as small as the Harvard Press, takes to ensure its stories are accurate, fair, and true. It’s a fixed cost and as much a part of the preparation of a story as the time a reporter spends attending meetings, reading clip files, gathering documents, and interviewing sources.

When Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan recently asked Frank Sesno, the director of George Washington University’s media school, what he wished people understood about the news business (television in particular), he answered “the vetting process, the checks and balances that viewers never see.”

“It belies the prevailing narrative of ‘fake’ news,” he said, “because the very systems in place are there (when used and used correctly) to generate skepticism about stories and sources, to put the brakes on confirmation bias [the tendency to look only for evidence that confirms your own biases] and leaps of journalistic faith.” The quest, as famed Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein told the White House Correspondents’ Association earlier this year, is always to seek “the best obtainable version of the truth.”

Reporters do the legwork and get the bylines, but behind every well-done story are the copy editors, proofreaders, and fact checkers who reviewed and questioned its content and helped make it clearer. As our winter break approaches, we pause to thank our own behind-the-scenes crew at the Press who work hard each week to make sure our work is the best it can be. They can make the life of a reporter on deadline difficult, but we’re glad they have our backs. Our paper’s light is brighter because of them.

If you’d like to learn more about editing at the Press and perhaps join us, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us at editor@harvardpress.net.

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