Monday, June 20, 2005

Not everybody believes in fact-checking

An old friend (chronologically and actually) took a strip off recently about fact checking. From the perspective of this experienced writer, poet, essayist, and frequent travel writer, the function of a fact-checker at a magazine is redundant or counter-productive. He also thinks it's insulting. He is not alone.

It's not always clear why some people see fact checkers as problems rather than solutions, but it's an important question, because magazines are the only medium that still uses such a function, although it is no longer a given. Certainly the recent decision by the Publisher and Editor of Maclean's to do away with most of his research (read, fact-checking) department raises again whether this is a necessity, a luxury for some or a dopey idea whose time is long since passed.

The positive side, first:

Fact checkers make writers better at what they do, either by making them work harder to avoid being caught out by the checkers, or because checkers make their stories even more accurate and unassailable than they could otherwise do for themselves. On complicated stories, it's insurance against frivolous complaints when every quote and fact has been double-checked. Sometimes, frankly, fact checkers can save even veteran writers from being embarrassed. Plus, trained fact-checkers can refine and improve a story, without impinging on the creative. In one example, a writer quoted the summary of a Parliamentary committee, only for the fact-checker (who diligently went to the actual minutes of the committee to double-check) to find that the summary was wrong. Not hugely wrong, but not right, if you see what we mean. Fact-checking is also a great way to train people in an entry level job that can pay off in their being better editors for their whole careers. John Macfarlane, Editor of Toronto Life, says that very few of the people he hires have not been interns at his shop, and virtually all interns spend most of their time fact-checking.

The negative side:

Fact checkers may get too big for their britches, querying a writer's style and word choice (which, properly, should be done by a copy editor -- usually a more seasoned position) as well as doing the more prosaic job of checking each quote with the person quoted and each stated fact against the source material. In addition, some writers think that fact checkers cause their colleagues (never themselves) to become lazy, figuring that the fact-checker will pick up any small errors. And going back to sources to check quotes can sometimes lead to unnecessary modifcations of something a person blurted out, but regretted in hindsight. (Interestingly, one hears very few concrete examples of sources "taking back" what they said.) Writers, of course, also hate the little bit of extra work involved in providing all the notes, transcripts and copies of or citations for source documents that fact-checking requires and demands.

Books, it is said, are not fact-checked because they couldn't afford to do it. Newspapers are not fact-checked because they face a daily grind that doesn't lend itself to it (and, besides, newspapers can correct their errors the next day -- a fairly cynical view). Magazines, with their longer periodicity and lead times, are said to want to get it right the first time to save trouble and because it could be months before they could publish a correction.

Even with something apparently as simple and commonplace (though not as commonplace as it once was) as fact checking, magazine people sometimes don't agree. But it is the rare magazine editor who doesn't thank his or her luck several times a year that a clanger was caught before it was printed on the page.

Perhaps readers have examples of the positive or the negative. Or views on the topic generally. (Also whether there is always a hyphen between fact and checking or checker.)


Blogger Rick Spence said...

This comment comes three months late, but if there is indeed such an absence of anecdotal evidence about the downside of fact-checking, I would like this one on the record.

Many years ago, as a freelancer, I did a piece on a very prominent business person with political aspirations, for a major national business magazine (not the one you might expect). I talked to lots of colleagues and competitors, and dug up a few insightful but critical comments among the usual compliments.

The two best barbs were removed by the editor following the fact-checking process. Given a chance to recant, the two sources, unsurprisingly, had second thoughts about what they had said, and claimed the comments had been made off the record. They had not been - my notes clearly showed where these sources had veered off the record, and these comments did not come from those parts of the interview.

I made these points to my editor, who said he would take my response into account.

When the story was published, I was disgusted to see that the comments were retained in the story - but the sources were no longer identified. This weasely backing off of important critical points undermined the entire story.

I later worked for 12 years at a national magazine that did not employ fact-checking. We published less than a dozen corrections over those years, most of them entirely unsubstantial. There is no way I could have justified paying fact-checkers at that magazine.

(I later worked briefly with a magazine that did employ fact-checking. I found a somewhat lower concern among the editors and writers for getting facts right, knowing they had that safety net in place. And although we used very professional and tenacious checkers, the errors still slipped through.)

I'd rather invest the money in writers and editors to do the job right in the first place.

1:43 pm  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home