Fact-Checking: Don’t Assume Anything
Whether editing fiction, nonfiction, corporate documents, or magazine articles, some responsibility falls upon the editor to verify the facts. Fact-checking is about ensuring that a piece of writing and its sources are accurate, fair, and credible in order to protect authors and publishers from errors, criticism, fraud, and lawsuits. Lisa Gold, a fact-checker and researcher, will discuss various aspects of fact-checking, offer tips and resources, and explain why you should be skeptical about everything you read.
Lisa Gold is a freelance researcher, fact-checker, and writer. She has fact-checked magazine articles, reported features, narrative essays, book reviews, historical novels, nonfiction books, and other types of writing. She’s been a member of the Northwest Independent Editors Guild since 2005. You’ll find Lisa online at www.lisagold.com and on Twitter at @bylisagold.
(Notes from the 11/14/16 meeting, by Sally Gianelli)
- Survey time! Guild treasurer Elaine Duncan informed attendees that 2017 marks the twentieth anniversary of the Northwest Independent Editors Guild, which has more than 300 members. To ensure continued improvement in programs and services, please complete the emailed member survey. It takes about 15 minutes to complete.
- Check out the new blog entry on the Guild’s web site by current Guild board president Kathleen Walker.
- Special thanks to Beth Chapple and to her volunteers who helped organize and staff the Guild table at the Portland Wordstock Festival on November 5.
- Save the date: September 23, 2017 is the next Editors Guild Conference, held at Bastyr University in Kenmore.
- Volunteer opportunities available for the following:
- Guild conference (see above, details at next meeting)
- 2017 board service openings (talk to Jill Walters, incoming board president)
- 2017 Guild bimonthly meeting setup, video camera assistance, and two note-takers (these volunteers receive a free one-year membership)
Introduction to Fact-Checking
Lisa Gold, a Guild member since 2005, began her presentation by defining fact-checking as more than just verifying names, dates, and facts. Some questions we all need to ask when editing are “Is this true? Is this criticism fair? Has this information been taken out of context?”
Lisa says aspiring fact checkers should have a unique skill set, including an obsession with accuracy, skepticism, diplomacy, people skills, and an aptitude for research and critical thinking. They should be willing to ask questions.
Dedicated fact checkers could be employees, interns, or freelancers. They usually can be found working for print magazines. Ideally, a fact-checker should be independent of the source they are checking—not the writer or editor, although this isn’t always possible.
Getting down to business
Fact-checking expectations and standards vary significantly by project, by publication or medium, staffing levels, budgets, and deadlines. Because of these variables, you can’t always predict how long a project will take. To operate within tight time or budget constraints, Lisa advocates focusing only on problem areas or red flags, which she discusses in detail later in the presentation.
Not all businesses employ fact-checkers. Some publications, particularly web-based ones, rely on crowd-sourced fact-checking; that is, they print corrections and updates after a piece has been published. A print magazine may have its material fact-checked, while its web material is not. Newspapers and books are not formally fact-checked, they are reviewed by editors. Some newspapers post corrections such as you’ll find on page two of the New York Times.
Question: Do you have any suggestions for copyeditors to broach the subject of fact-checking with the author?
Answer: You can ask, “Do you want me to also check if the names are spelled right, quotes, dates, and numbers are correct?”
Fact-checking for magazines
- Read the piece entirely to gauge potential accuracy challenges.
- Ask the author for sources such as interview tapes, transcripts, studies, links, and legal documents.
- Find out if the sources have any legal, anonymity, or protection clauses.
- Tell your supervisor or editor to be your advocate if your author won’t cooperate.
- Flag what needs to be checked when you read your draft. Some people prefer manually color-coding to confirm changes, while many prefer electronically tracked changes.
- Have a system! Lisa keeps an original copy, her working copy, and a clean final copy with her fact-checking tracked changes with explanations for them. She includes colors designating whether sources were humans, from studies, author’s opinion or characterizations. To “unflag” source queries that have been confirmed, she changes the background color to gray.
- Brooke Borel’s book The Chicago Guide to Fact-Checking (2016) introduces another method for fact-checking that involves bolding or highlighting the whole piece and removing the formatting as you correct it.
- Prioritize your fact-checking. Contact human sources first. Lisa prefers to email her sources, rather than cold-call them.
- Document your work as you go, bookmarking or saving links in tracked changes comments.
- Search for other articles or information on the subject matter. This way you find out what you don’t know, so you can ask the author why he or she chose a certain source or data when more a recent or credible source or data is available.
- Suggest changes or corrections diplomatically! What do you think of —? Or introduce an issue and ask if they can tell you how they would address it? (If the author doesn’t want to fix an error, that’s a red flag to bring to your editor and/or your supervisor.) Copy and paste your email exchange, summarize what you found. If you are overruled but you think it’s vitally important, speak up.
- Look for qualifiers and hedge words. “Arguably” or “alleged” or “may be” are red flags.
- Check headlines and captions too!
Question: When you have finished your basic review and querying, do you present your whole list of queries to the author or do you break it up for the author?
Answer: I usually break it up. For large pieces, I may accumulate ten or twenty and send them, then wait and see how that goes before sending the next batch. If it’s a short piece, I can send one email.
For more complicated issues, then you get a lot of back-and-forth emails.
If there is something important such as issues with a source, I’ll send that separately. It depends.
Most authors prefer to communicate by email, rather than phone, I have found. Try to be cooperative and helpful.
Question: What is your preferred way of dealing with unsourced quotes?
Answer: This is one of my bugaboos! I’m always going to go to the source, to the works of that author. I’ll search on Google, I’ll look on Google Nooks, I read footnotes in books. There are many ways to trace back to the original source. It’s important.
Quotes are one of the most problematic things to check. Quotes from dead sources? Just assume they’re wrong!
Question: Do you spend much time seeking out physical sources for facts such as government documents?
Answer: For magazine fact-checking, you are usually limited by time constraints to use digital sources. I go to the University of Washington library for journal articles behind paywalls. Most government documents are available free online, but there have been times I’ve gone to the library to get books and trace footnotes to clear something up. Ninety-nine percent of what you need to find is on the Internet.
Question: How do you get access to expensive information like journals you need to confirm facts?
Answer: There are ways around this so you don’t have to pay huge amounts of money. Some resources Lisa has used include:
- The UW Library (non-alums can use guest access computers for searches and smart-stick downloads; Alumni Association members have expanded library access)
- LexisNexis search engine (available through some employers and library systems)
- Study authors—Contact directly to request copies of their studies
- Google Scholar
- Author’s home page—many authors include links to their research
What do you check for?
Lisa quotes from author Brooke Borel, who says, “When a fact-checker asks what they need to check, the answer is: everything…” The list that followed was extensive, but it’s featured in Lisa’s handout, “Selected Resources and Information about Fact-Checking.”
When fact-checking scientific studies, beware. Newspapers are notorious for misinterpretations of studies. Do the right thing: find the original study, learn how researchers obtained data for it, ask if conclusions are supported by the study or are they overstated, and compare the study against others. Is this study an outlier, or does it replicate findings of other studies? Did the author cherry-pick sources, or ignore evidence against the study?
- Know the difference between mean, median, and average scores.
- Use the original research; abstracts are insufficient.
- Find out the sample size of the study.
- Was the outcome measurable? Meaningful?
- Is the study peer-reviewed?
Polling presents more opportunities for fact-checking. Even with the same facts, data can be weighted or interpreted differently, so ask:
- What kind of methodology was used?
- What is the historical accuracy of this pollster?
- How many people were polled?
- Nix the qualifiers and hedge words.
- Avoid sweeping statements; be as specific as you can.
Potential legal problems lurk in stories that use single or anonymous sources, or seem too good to be true. Other things to look for:
- Biased and questionable agendas of reporting sources
- Conflicting facts
- Any controversial legal, sensitive issues involving crime, murder, or rape
- Familiar, already-published anecdotes (not always intentional and not always plagiarism)
Use court documents to report judgements, charges, case facts, verdicts, and opinions. If you recognize questionable sources or agendas, or find unsupported facts, you should push back. One option is to say, “This is a very controversial statement. Maybe you should frame it like that.” There are times when you must insist on a rewrite.
Document what they knew and when they knew it to protect yourself in case there is a lawsuit.
Question: How accurate were the live fact-checks during the presidential debates and do you think they were problematic?
Answer: I love what NPR did with the live fact-checking during the debates. You can be pretty sure if the subject is health care, one candidate is going to say this and one candidate is going to say that. Candidates will use rehashed statistics so fact-checkers can verify facts cited ahead of time. Lisa referred to her handout citation, “Fact-checking under President Trump” and suggested that information literacy might be the best way to counteract ignorance locally and nationally. Her blog expands on this topic, exploring how digital natives rely on false information on the Internet.
Lisa emphasized the importance of evaluating sources; which is also a topic on the last page of her handout. She referenced the CRAP test for evaluating sources. The CRAP acronym stands for Currency, Reliability, Authority, Purpose/Point of View.
Information literacy skills are crucially important. It’s not enough to search, you have to evaluate the sources that you find. All sources are not equal. Don’t retweet an article if you haven’t read the article! And know that just because a study is frequently cited, doesn’t mean it is reputable, accurate, or true!
Question: For those of us who copyedit books…Given that books in general don’t get a fact-checker, is there anything you wish copyeditors would do differently?
Answer: I have copyedited historical fiction. It’s important that authors tell you what level of accuracy they want. Authors may have made conscious choices to change history and you need to know that. But there are factual things within fiction like epigraph books. Check those! Historical names, places, dates. Even poetry can have facts in it.
Nonfiction – it’s even more important. The problem with fact-checking books is it would take forever to do full books. You rarely are asked to fact-check a full book.