Most writers wouldn’t dream of turning in a manuscript riddled with spelling mistakes or grammatical errors. Yet many of us don’t apply the same eagle eye to the facts of the story. Solid facts establish a writer’s credibility. If a source’s name is misspelled, for instance, it casts doubt on the rest of the article.
Publications vary widely in their fact-checking techniques. Some do no checking at all, while many employ several full-time checkers. Fact checkers at The New Yorker have traveled to Nova Scotia and Hawaii to verify a writer’s description. Such extremes aside, many consumer magazines expect writers to turn in reference materials and a list of sources when the finished article is submitted.
As research editor of a national entertainment magazine, I checked hundreds of articles, from record reviews to political exposes. I learned that when fact checking, there’s no such thing as a stupid question. “Are you nearsighted or farsighted?” “How many steps are there in front of the New York Public Library?” were typical queries. Ultimately, the writer’s work habits usually determined whether the checking process would be a dream or a nightmare.
You can troubleshoot potential problems by using reliable sources (the sidebar on page 39 tells you those to steer clear of) and getting specifics during interviews. Then you’ll have ample material to check your finished product against. And the first time you catch one of your own errors, you’ll be hooked forever on the importance of accuracy and fact checking.
Be Your Own Fact Checker
Not every writer will have access to a team of fact checkers dissecting every word of a story, but you can do a first-rate job yourself. Here are some of the basics:
* Recognize that the most familiar material is hardest to check – it’s easy to lose perspective. Start by pretending you never saw a word of your article before.
* Underline each and every fact in the story. Check every fact against your material, crossing out each one as you go. The sidebar “The Dirty Dozen” (below) outlines 12 types of particularly troublesome facts.
* Use primary sources when possible. Ask an expert instead of relying on a newspaper clipping. If you’re quoting a song lyric, listen to it yourself. Is the song title “I’ll Always Love You” or “I Will Always Love You”? (FYI: It’s the latter.)
* When checking facts over the phone, don’t read the information and ask if it’s correct. Let your source give you the name spelling, description or statistic you need, then check it against what you’ve written.
* Libel-proof your story. If an actor tells you, “My last director was a cocaine addict, and everyone in Hollywood knows it,” it could constitute libel, regardless of how many people are repeating the rumor. Has the director publicly admitted a drug problem? “Talk to the first source who has given you the information,” says Martin Baron, research editor at The New Yorker. “Get that source to supply the name of someone who can also back it up.”
* Know when to let go. Some “facts” are far from black and white and are impossible to pin down to an absolute. For example, when checking the per capita income of El Salvador, you’ll find several “official” numbers. Sometimes you just must pick the most credible source you find and go with it.
* Finally, don’t chuck mountains of accumulated research into the waste-bin. Consider your interview notes, articles, documents and other materials worth their weight in gold. You may need them later to defend points in your article.
If you’re fortunate enough to have a fact checker assigned to your story, there’s a lot you can do to make that relationship more fruitful. Remember that the checker is on your side, although it may not seem that way when you get a call asking “So exactly where did you get this statistic? Are you sure?”
If you cringe at the thought of the checker marching into your editor’s office to broadcast your mistakes, relax – no writer is perfect and no one expects you to be. You share a common goal: to fix errors before they hit print. “The relationship between writer and checker is not adversarial, it’s cooperative. We try very hard to uphold the integrity of the writer’s words,” suggests Baron.
Being questioned about the facts in your piece may seem like undergoing police interrogation, but it’s for your own good. Most writers have felt the sting of noticing an error in a published piece. Wouldn’t you rather mistakes be noticed on the fact checker’s desk instead of on the newsstand? Here are some tips to make the checking process more foolproof and less painful:
* Get involved in the process – within reason. If you feel a particular issue needs extra attention, don’t ignore it and hope no one notices. Let the checker know so he or she can help clear it up. “The writer is entitled to say, I’m not really sure about this. I wish you’d pay particular attention to it,” says Baron. And it’s also okay to dispute a checker’s finding if you’re absolutely certain that your information is correct.
That kind of situation arose frequently during my own tenure as a fact-checker. I once found what I imagined was a huge mistake in one writer’s story – a prominent researcher’s name was spelled with an extra e in every publication I checked. It turned out that the magazines were all wrong and the writer had it right. Because the writer had called me to warn me that the source’s name was often misspelled, my magazine was able to print it correctly.
* Keep your cool. If the checker alerts you to an error or discrepancy, don’t get rattled or defensive, just …
* Give the checker what he or she needs. “The most basic help a writer can offer is to supply the checker with the sources that he or she used to write the piece,” explains Baron. “We’re not set up to gather the materials ourselves. We rely on the writer to share them with us.” That means sending documents, videotapes, audiotapes, illustrations, maps and articles. (Make copies for yourself.)
* Share your wisdom. Don’t send pounds of research without first high-lighting quotes from articles, cuing interview tapes to relevant spots, and circling sections from court documents. The more insight you provide, the better. “The checker isn’t necessarily an expert in the field the story concerns,” says Baron. “The writer has been immersed in the subject for however long it took to write the piece, so he or she is in a position to help us.” Flag passages that can only be checked with certain people and note phone numbers in the margin.
* Keep in touch. “It makes things a lot easier if the writer is available for consultation. If you are on the verge of going out of town, the checker may not realize that,” says Baron. To avoid getting calls on your vacation, contact the checker before you leave. If there’s a problem, you want to be involved in solving it, not missing in action.
* Update your story if necessary. If an editor holds your fact-checked story for months, update it before it runs. Consider the ten-word sentence, “Ms. Jones is a 27-year-old chiropractor from Honolulu.” If Jones switched jobs, moved or had a birthday, the facts change. Also, ask to proof your story after it’s been typeset – mistakes can be unwittingly edited in by overworked editors.
Checking your facts is as important to your article as the attention-grabbing lead you craft. Getting them right helps establish your credibility – and might turn your editor into an enthusiastic buyer of your future work.