Saturday, September 17, 2005

Fact-checking, some other views

Back in June, the blog carried an item about fact-checking. Recently, it made the rounds of a newsgroup of freelancers in Toronto and at least one of them posted a comment (three months late, as he said) that's worth reading because it argues against fact-checking. Click here or on the head above to read the item and the belated comment.

In addition, another correspondent of the newsgroup, a doyenne of fact-checking who has trained many of today's fact checkers, sent a response directly to me with a number of other people's comments on the topic. (Since I don't have permission to name them, these responses are presented anonymously):
Not surprisingly, I'm pleased to hear these comments in support of fact-checking, since I spend a lot of time teaching people how to do it and have published an article that argues for its existence.

As to the question of whether to hyphenate fact-checking, I usually do. But I also never spell copy editing the same way twice when I'm not being paid to get it right -- copyediting, copy-editing, copy editing; dictionaries differ. The shoemaker's kids go barefoot, the doctor's kids die young and the copy editor is inconsistent. Don't tell [my boss].) The Canadian Oxford Dictionary doesn't list fact-checking, but it does hyphenate fact-finding,which would seem to be a grammatically parallel form.
I, too, appreciate the work checkers do on my stories. (A special nod to the great ones I've so often dealt with over the years -- Veronica Cusak, Dawn Promislow, Geri Savits-Fine, Charles Rowland, Cynthia Brouse.) I'm mainly a writer, & I know that especially with longer features writers understandably end up seeing the forest more clearly than individual trees. After you've lived with a story for weeks or months, even careful re-reading may not spot an error that a fresh set of eyes might.(Sometimes the handling editor, although that person is preoccupied with structure & bigger picture issues; sometimes the copy editor, but copy editors aren't scrutinizing every fact.) Every writer knows that tiny pieces inevitably fall through the cracks. The fact checker is the invaluable safety net catching as many of these stray pieces as possible. It's a great tradition in the magazine business & it's depressing to observe it gradually eroding.
Just thought I'd throw in my two cents here, as someone who supplements his freelance income with regular checking jobs.

I'm not a huge checking partisan or anything - though I am glad to have an
hourly wage supplement to my buck a word ( a buck on the good days, that is. But here's the thing: in three years of fact-checking features, I have
*never* run across a feature that didn't have several mistakes in it. They're generally minor mistakes - money amounts that mix US with Canadian dollar figures, misspelled names of minor characters, etc. - but they're real mistakes nonetheless.

The majority of features I see, including those written by top people, have roughly TEN TO FIFTEEN of these types of comparatively minor errors in them. The absolute cleanest feature might have three to five.

Now, you could argue that these types of errors are things that the writers, had they been working in a checking-free zone, wouldn't have let through. But I don't think that's generally true. I think that most of these mistakes are just a product of the writing process, of the tricky nature of capturing reality in words. There's no way a single mind can account for every single little factual detail in a 5,000 word piece - especially at a buck a word or less.

To me, this justifies checking for mags, hands down (I shudder to think of
the howlers that make it into books and papers on a regular basis, given their lack of checking). And frankly, I find the attitude of DB's friend surprising. I know I'm personally thrilled by the fact that my mag work getschecked - it's not insulting, it's a kind of insurance policy for my research, helping me to breathe easier when the piece comes out.

Let me repeat: I have never in my career as a checker met an error-free

To add my two cents, I've been lucky to secure a part-time internship that
allows me to do a lot of the work from home, including fact-checking some of the larger stories. Having done graduate research before, I'd thought that fact-checking would be a breeze, but this recent exercise has opened my eyes to just how skilled good fact-checkers are. Beyond simply knowing where to go to look up facts, I've found that it also requires a huge amount of tact,patience and (sometimes) humour, as well as skillful sleuthing.

I've just begun checking one of our features and have already found about half of Nick's quota of errors. I've also noticed that there is a lot of variance between authors -- some submit 'clean' copy that is a joy to check; others submit copy that's a little more difficult to decipher and definitely more of a challenge (though I'm not saying I don't like a challenge!).

Thinking about it now, I probably should have taking the fact checking course at Ryerson if I'd known how difficult this would be. In fact, I may end up taking it in any case!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Going back to the belated comment on the original fact-checking entry, even the well-paid writers and editors advocated for in place of a fact-checker make mistakes. It's simply human nature. To be honest, I've generally found that the writers who object the most to being fact-checked are usually those with the most errors and laziest copy. Everyone else is either grateful for my role as their second set of eyes, or simply accepts it as part of the writing job. And while, when I'm writing, it's sometimes painful to keep track of everything, I find it's good for keeping me from getting to carried away with the creative end of things. I disagree with the implication that writers are somehow sacred and above having to do such things (ie. I've written it, and therefore why should I have to prove it's correct?).

As a fact-checker, I find I'm also the one responsible for ensuring that my magazine isn't sued for libel, a situation which has come up more than once. These aren't always concerns of the writer's, but certainly are for the magazine (which could be why the editor chose to remove a source's name). And, I've also caught plagiarism on several occasions which, again, would not otherwise have been caught.

As for quotes, there are many ways to fact-check a quote, and generally, if you do it right (and provided you trust the writer), you don't end up with sources taking back what they've said. The trick is to get them to say it again without realizing they're being checked on a quote.

8:31 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry folks, but fact checking is a dying part of the business.
In today's reality, when you're trying to evaluate how best to spend limited editorial resources, wasting money on people who ensure that your writers are doing their jobs is an unaffordable luxury.
With the end of fact checking there WILL be more mistakes in magazines. There WILL be more corrections, some of them embarassing. But that's the price magazines will have to pay to remain competitive.
With a weekly deadline, writers have all the time they need to double-check facts. Accuracy is a writer's responsibility, and we're all going to have to get used to working without a safety net.
Besides, in my experience, fact checkers are extremely good at catching small, nettlesome little mistakes. I've always been glad that they caught whatever mistakes they did, but I've never seen them catch what I'd consider to be a critical, fundamental mistake. Good editors know their libel law and should be keeping the magazine out of trouble.
When I saw that Maclean's got rid of its fact checkers this year I wasn't at all surprised. The whole industry will soon follow suit.

8:08 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Doyenne" weighing in here (don’t know how accurate that is, D.B.!)

One can certainly make an argument for cutting back on anything that goes into producing a magazine when money is tight, which it usually is.

But, without reproducing here the article I wrote years ago ("The Snubs That Rub," Masthead, February 1990) -- or the courses I teach on fact-checking at Ryerson -- let me point out a couple of things:

I’d like to address the "Anonymous" commenter (come out, come out, wherever you are) who says fact-checking is dead and who has found that fact-checkers only ever uncover "small, nettlesome little mistakes." First of all, I have fact-checked many articles that contained mistakes nobody would call small or little (or both!). They seriously affected –- even destroyed -- the underlying premise of the story or at least created an inaccurate portrait of a person, place or situation.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that most of the errors a typical fact-checker finds are only "small, nettlesome little mistakes."

What’s your definition of "small"? And whom do you think you can afford to nettle? It may not matter to you whether somebody is from Peterborough or from Trenton, but the person whose hometown is incorrectly cited will be pissed off enough to consider not buying or recommending your magazine -- as will the readers who learn about the error. I have never heard a reader praise the authority of an article that’s been found to contain "small" errors on the grounds that the weightier claims were probably factually accurate. Readers are more likely to focus on what they found to be untrue: "Well, if they can’t get his name spelled right and it turns out he worked for the Link 'n' Visitor, not the Lincoln Visitor, and he has three sisters, not two, he’s Presbyterian, not Anglican, and even though the writer meant to call the youngest sister svelte, he accidentally used the word zaftig, then I must assume this writer is sloppy and that all of the reporting is suspect." (These are real examples of errors found by fact-checkers.) That’s how human beings think. In other words, the edifice of credibility is constructed of a thousand little pieces, the loss of any of which can cause the whole thing to come crashing down.

It’s tempting to separate facts into more important ones and less important ones, but the boundary is unclear, and it’s risky to assume you know the difference, because it depends on who’s reading them. So, yes, fact-checkers repeat a lot of work that’s already been done by the writer, but that’s because we can’t predict where the errors are, and what weight will be attached to them by whom. (Not to mention the fact that the "reverse onus" in Canadian libel law makes the ability to prove truth even more critical than it is in the United States -- you could argue that fact-checking is more important here than south of the border.)

There are many other reasons why I believe it’s important to double-check magazine writers’ work –- not least the fact that freelance writers are seriously underpaid, and that they must (or should) expend more of their time and energy on analysis and literary craft than, say, a newspaper or TV reporter does.

Let me just point out one more that is often forgotten: in the unlikely event that a writer hands in a perfectly error-free manuscript, a fact-checker will still normally find numerous errors to correct –- errors that were introduced in the editing process.

Some of the most serious errors I’ve caught as a fact-checker were made by the handling editor, not the writer. And the most serious of these happened while I was fact-checking for Maclean’s, which I’m told has recently done away with its checking department.

Yes, you can make an argument for eliminating fact-checking, but in the end, I think the argument for retaining the process is more persuasive.

4:33 pm  

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