Discover more from The Food Section
Matter of facts
How this week's feature was readied for publication
Citing “if your mother says she loves you, check it out” is easy. It’s the checking that’s hard.
How would you verify your mother’s feelings for you? Could she have written them down in a diary? Shared them with a friend who helpfully kept her text messages?
Fact checking is a hugely important part of good journalism. I was recently interviewed for a local news study, and one of the questions concerned which story attribute I consider most important: Surprising, Entertaining, or Accurate. I suppose you might be surprised or entertained if I told you that horses laid eggs, but I’m not sure you’d read the newsletter again.
Accuracy beats all. That’s why it’s standard practice for The Food Section to confirm every detail it publishes.
But this week’s feature posed an uncommon challenge on the fact-checking front.
The story’s author, Christina Lynch, and several of her sources are incarcerated in a Georgia State Prison. That means there’s very little independent documentation of their activities, and no simple way to get in touch with them, since authorized email access is restricted and cell phones are banned.
To start, I called the Georgia Department of Correction, which instructed me to submit a records request through its online portal. I doubted the agency would have written evidence of the private gatherings chronicled in the story—and I didn’t want to make the mistake of conflating a law enforcement report with the truth—but since the GDC is a character of sorts in the piece, it seemed fair to ask for comment.
As predicted, I struck out. GDC could only confirm that Lynch was a resident of Central State Prison, information which is readily available online.
Perhaps an unaffiliated source at Central could help. Because I don’t have any personal or professional experience with the institution, I messaged my friend George Chidi, a fellow Substack Local grant recipient and longtime Atlanta journalist. He connected me with a defense attorney who has clients at Central and talks regularly to their family members: The lawyer referred me to one of them who keeps tabs on what’s happening at the prison.
To my relief, she was able to vouch for much of the information in the story.
Still, I felt I owed it to readers and the essay’s author to make sure the piece was as thoroughly vetted as every other story published by The Food Section. One of the nice things about being a paying member of the South Carolina Press Association, besides picking up the occasional award, is having access to a media attorney’s services. A Columbia, South Carolina lawyer read Lynch’s story word-by-word and gave me the go-ahead to run it.
“If you want to be totally ethical,” he added, “you should talk to the people quoted.”
As he explained, there was no reason to fear a libel suit. To demonstrate libel in this country, the plaintiff must show that in addition to being untrue, the offending material damaged his or her reputation. Depressingly, courts generally hold that someone who has been imprisoned already has the lowest possible reputation.
What worried him was that people who are incarcerated don’t have the same means as people outside prison to challenge a story if they don’t like its thesis or tone. Most people in maximum-security facilities can’t monitor Twitter all day.
So, I asked Lynch to arrange a phone call. I talked to each of the two men quoted, going over their depictions in the story and giving them a chance to raise objections.
Neither had a complaint. The story was published on Monday.
I realize this is an awfully long journalism lesson for folks who signed up for The Food Section to learn about good places to eat. But I wanted to take this opportunity to explain how the newsletter is produced, and why it’s paywalled.
If you add up Lynch’s fee, editing hours, and the fact-checking detailed above, I’d reckon Monday’s feature has a $1600 price tag. That’s the equivalent of 320 monthly subscriptions. The Food Section has 467 monthly subscribers, along with 57 annual subscribers, so the cost is manageable—but just barely.
Remember, what’s left after that spend has to cover all of The Food Section’s expenses, including travel, review meals, phone and internet service, Substack fees, newspaper subscriptions, and my salary. (I promise I don’t take much, but I have to pay the rent!)
In other words, I don’t charge for The Food Section because I’m trying to get rich. I charge because I’m trying to get everything right. I hope you’ll consider supporting that work.
Have a great weekend.