Former Sports Illustrated writer and fact-checker on the magazine’s Oklahoma State series
Filed by KOSU News in Feature.
September 13, 2013
The Sports Illustrated series on Oklahoma State football has come under question from both local and national media. While some don’t dispute issues at the school (most notably a drug counselor who had no previous experience and lied on his resume), reporting by ESPN, the Tulsa World, The Oklahoman, and more all pointed out inconsistencies, a lack of context, and some outright wrong facts.
So how does such a series get fact-checked at Sports Illustrated? Former staff writer and fact-checker John Walters wrote about the process in a blog post today. I called him up for more details.
How important were facts?
“A story would come on my desk, I would fact check it. There would be at least three edits. There would be what we would call the blue pencil, there’d be called the red pencil, then there’d be an assistant managing editor who would edit that story. There would also be a copy reader. Then finally, there was a late reader who went over that story.
“Obviously, more than just facts were combed through. The content of the story, how it read, grammar, but in terms of the facts of that story, that was my job. The people I listed in that story are some very talented people who have gone on to some great things. We all started there checking facts for a living.”
What kind of leeway would a reporter have in quotations they obtained themselves?
“What you would do in terms of direct quotes, you had to give that to the writer. One of the first things, if not the first thing, you’d do when the story landed on your desk is you would phone the writer. You would ask him for phone numbers of sources, you would ask him where he got what he got, that’s the first thing you’d do to help you get to what you need.
“Now, if he’s quoting someone, you’re not going to call that person and say did you say this because they may realize it’s going to run in Sports Illustrated and they may not like the way it sounds, so you have to take the writer’s word for it. It helps to have the tapes, if there was a very delicate story, or controversial story, they might ask to have those tapes sent before we saw them. Bottom line is, if it’s a quote, you give it to the writer.
“You have to depend on him being honest and having integrity. If it comes out later that he manufactured that quote or manipulated that quote, that writer could lose his job.”
So quotations wouldn’t necessarily get checked, what about documentation?
“Well the documentation gets checked. I haven’t combed through the Oklahoma State story as closely as probably the listeners in Oklahoma have, but if you get a year wrong on somebody graduating or say they graduated and they did not, that sort of error, while not as controversial as quotes, undermines the entire credibility of the story.
“As far as quotes themselves, if that’s taped, that’s pretty easily solved. Either he said it or he did not. The next step you go to is what was the interviewee under the impression that he was talking about?
“That is something where I think the writer can damage his whole entire future. If you’re fooling people into talking things about things and they think they’re talking about an entirely different topic, you’re going to a very bad gray area as a writer, because no one’s going to talk to you again.”
“As I put in my blog, I want to know what Thayer Evans and George Dohrmann, but it sounds like Thayer did most of the interviews, what was he telling these people the story was about, what did they think they were talking to him about? And then the final step to this is did they think they were off the record? Did he bother to tell them whether they were on the record or off the record? Again, another gray area. Very tempting for a writer to get terrific information, how you get that information, how you obtain it, and what bridges you burn in terms of getting it, can affect the rest of your career.”
How is it that Yahoo can provide more documentation, where few have found holes?
“I think it comes down to the individuals working at the respective publications and sites.
“It’s the commitment you make to being as professional as possible.”
“SI is a weekly magazine, there are people devoted to putting out a product every week. It’s also got a certain amount of pieces of material on the website that it’s trying to put out daily. There are segments and features that people come to depend on: whether or not it’s Stewart Mandel doing picks for Friday or Andy Staples’s doing his power rankings, these are things that take time away from the people who are doing them. They have to do these, because readers have come to expect it. Yahoo is a much more fluid enterprise, it’s not a weekly magazine. They understand that what’s important for them is to produce content like this when they can get it out.
“One Yahoo report story like this on DJ Fluker can carry them for quite some time. They don’t need to get one out every week or every month. But when they do something like this, or the one they did about the University of Miami, that gives them cachet for a great amount of time. So they’re not under the same amount of time constraints or just content, production, being prolific constraints that Sports Illustrated’s writers are under.”