How Magazine Editors Steer Clear of Fake News Stories

Reactions from the trenches at the AMMC Conference

Jess Cagle, editorial director of People and Entertainment Weekly, says he and his team are “always on alert for fake news since it happens 24/7. The last thing you want to be doing in this climate is giving the White House something to call you out on.”

Cagle participated in a session about perpetuating journalistic standards vs. ‘alternative facts’ at the American Magazine Media Conference (AMMC) in New York Wednesday. Other panelists included editors from New York, Good Housekeeping, Parents, and Glamour. Former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson moderated.

Fake news isn’t a recent phenomenon, and as Cagle pointed out, editors must be on guard against false rumors such as the reported death of Queen Elizabeth, who just celebrated her 65th anniversary as Britain’s monarch. Alternative facts have gained heightened global attention since the 2016 campaign and the start of Donald Trump’s presidency.

As film director Ron Howard observed in an earlier AMMC session, “A story doesn’t have to be overtly political to be political.” Given the heated political landscape now, editors outlined ways they scope out and prevent faux stories from appearing in print or online. While all media organizations follow internal protocols, the processes may vary by category.

“Traditional media has always had high standards, and we’ve been watching ourselves all along. For Good Housekeeping, research is our stock in trade. We do extensive fact checking and need to make sure a story adds up”, said Jane Francisco, editorial director, Hearst Lifestyle Group and editor of the brand known for its official seal of approval.

“At Parents, we need to support real science and credible scientific organizations,” said Liz Vaccariello, editor of Meredith Parents Network. “Anything related to health and safety on the site has been fact checked. Now that scientific information is being removed from some government sites, we need to explain good science to the public.”

“We must adhere to the same set of standards in longform and digital. It’s important to hire people who are up to your standards”, said Adam Moss, New York’s editor. “The internet and social media helps you correct fake news. With more content now we need to transfer the accountability to the reporters.”

“Everyone makes mistakes, and responsible reporters must correct them” added Cindi Leive, editor of Glamour. For us, the video editing process is more akin to what we do in print. Videos are harder to correct afterwards than digital.”

“People is where readers go to find out if it’s true, and they hold the brand accountable. We still vet our print and online stories through legal”, said Cagle. “We have to play the long game, and we’d rather be slow to confirm if a celebrity is pregnant. We wait, because it’s the right thing to do. And then we get their baby photos”, he added.

The editors also shared common reactions for handling the current charged political environment.

“At People we have to walk the line carefully”, said Cagle, while noting that the brand has had its own past Trump controversy. “Striking the right tone since the election has been a big part of what we do since the country is so divided”, he added.

“Magazines have a deliberate slowness built into our schedules. Now the president is creating so much chaos and activity, and his pace is dangerous for media organizations,” said Moss. “We need to be agile, aggressive and careful at the same time. We’re now being called to a higher standard of behavior.”