Adding To Your Editorial Tool Kit: Fact-Checking
February 24, 2009
Sam Case was working with an author who wrote that Abraham Lincoln was elected to the presidency at age 60. Based on Sam's calculations, this couldn't be so as we just celebrated the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth this year. Sam's next thought was that Lincoln must have been 51 when he was elected, because his birthday is February 12 and inauguration day is January 20. However, Sam dug further and found that Lincoln's inauguration was in March, thus making him 52 at the time he became president. After all this, one audience member exclaimed, "So being a fact-checker must also mean being good at Trivial Pursuit?!"
In addition to Sam, a fact-checker with Editcetera who is also a freelance ghostwriter and developmental editor, the panel included Mia Lipman, copy chief at San Francisco magazine and a freelance copyeditor, and Eric Smillie, a freelance journalist who has worked as a fact-checker for Via and Wired magazines.
All members of the panel are editors and fact-checkers, and they agree that most editing does involve some amount of fact-checking, something they learned on the job. "It is a very brave position to be in," according to Mia "because the fact-checker sometimes has to say that the logic in a story doesn't line up and the piece needs to be restructured or rewritten. But if you have the skills to be an editor and enjoy it, chances are you'll like fact-checking too."
The reasons to fact-check seem to fall into one of two categories: maintaining reputability and avoiding legal challenges. Liability, delays, and even reprints are all consequences of not fact-checking, which is what makes this step so crucial. "You don't just check facts for street cred," says Mia. "Libel is a very real concern for every publisher, so accuracy is a very serious responsibility."
The audience discussed a number of publications known for fact-checking, which include Mother Jones, The New Yorker, Consumer Reports, Wired, and Atlantic Monthly. San Francisco magazine's research department is staffed with a number of highly trained interns reporting to a research editor. They are tasked with checking the entire issue each month, and 100% accuracy is expected.
RE-REPORTING: THE PROCESS OF FACT-CHECKING
In discussing the process of fact-checking at their various publications, the panel basically described a method in which the fact-checker becomes involved once the piece has been initially edited. The fact-checker then begins to verify the facts presented and looks to see if anything has been omitted. Once finished, the fact-checker sits down with the editor to review any errors. Eric recommends finding a fix for any problems that you identify, like correcting an erroneous anecdote or mentioning extra information that an author may have left out.
The editor then makes the changes and as the story gets closer to the final proof, the fact-checker goes back to see if the changes have been made, if anything new has been introduced, and checks the photo credits if necessary. "You are essentially re-reporting the entire story for the author," says Eric. "And often you might feel like you could have done a better job."
NOT ALL SOURCES ARE CREATED EQUAL
There are a number of resources available to fact-checkers. All of the panelists agreed that the Internet is the first place they turn to, but usually as a jumping-off point for tracking down more reliable sources. When the question of how to treat Wikipedia as a source was posed, Eric answered, "It's good as a primary source in that it provides a general overview and typically has links to more reliable resources. Wikipedia just can't be trusted officially."
Other sources were discussedbooks, scholarly journals, and the likebut the final stop on the best path to verifying information seems to be contacting an actual person, usually an official representative of a business or a subject-matter expert. "The trick lies in knowing who to trust," said Mia. She told a story of fact-checking a piece with a good deal of subjective scientific information in it: "We confirmed one item with a UC Berkeley professor and the next day had one of his colleagues refute it. When we reach a point like that, we have to either work with the writer to write around the disputed information or drop it from the piece."
John Bergez, an experienced developmental editor and founding BAEF member, was in attendance and noted that accuracy in the book publishing world is usually the responsibility of the author, not the publisher, and therefore books are not usually fact-checked. "This can clearly cause problems since most fact-checkers use books as reputable sources."
BEING THE CONSCIENCE
Fact-checkers usually receive little to no training in the responsibilities of their role beforehand, and therefore face several challenges. For Eric, the biggest initial obstacle was learning to marshal all of his resources and maintaining effective relationships with members of his team. "Fact-checker are fairly low on the totem pole, and yet we are often challenging the work of writers and editors who usually want to smooth things over and get on to the next piece. We are required to be the conscience of the story." Mia noted that "It's a very political job and your first goal is to make sure you manage all those relationships constructively so that everyone is feeling respected."
Sam discussed another big challenge for fact-checkers: effective time management. "It can be a real headache when you're trying to get confirmation on a fact from two or three sources and meet your deadline at the same time. Fact-checkers are consistently required to go the extra mile. Ultimately you do as much as you can, and be upfront about what you weren't able to get done."
SKILLS AND "THE GUIDE"
The skills required for being an effective fact-checker are what you would expectnatural curiosity, attention to detail, tenacity. While the audience agreed that being well-versed in a particular field must also be an asset, the panel noted that not having experience allows one to take a step back and investigate without bias.
The panel also pointed to The Fact Checker's Bible by Sarah Harrison Smith as the ideal guide for navigating the sometimes murky waters of fact-checking.
When ghostwriting or editing, Sam also frequently offers his clients the option to have him additionally fact-check the piece. "If you're doing some level of fact-checking anyway, why not make sure you're getting compensated for it?" Yet another tool you can add to your editorial toolbox.
Micah Standley is the associate editor of artistic publications for San Francisco Opera. He has written and edited for projects ranging from music and opera to veterinary medicine and quilting. He is also a freelance musician.