Fact-checking is much in the news these days — or perhaps it’s the absence of it that’s much in the news.
It used to be, and may still be, that top-quality magazines had fact-checkers whose job was to go through every story accepted for publication and check all the facts. They weren’t responsible for the quality of the prose — just the facts.
Editing — specifically copyediting, which includes excruciating attention to detail — and fact-checking are two distinct tasks, but inevitably they overlap. Imprecise writing can lead to readerly misunderstanding, and those misunderstandings may have to do with facts. A trade publisher I’ve been working for regularly for many years directs copyeditors to check dates, the spelling of names, and anything that can be easily verified as long as it doesn’t add to billable time.
Before the World Wide Web, freelance copyeditors were limited to biographical dictionaries, atlases, specialized reference books, and such. Because these had been subjected to a rigorous editing process, they were reliable, but they were also limited in scope. Print references start going out of date even before they’re published, and the further your interests strayed from white male English-speakers, the harder it was to find any facts, verified or not.
In the Age of Google, you can find almost anything on the Web, but plenty of it hasn’t been subjected to either fact-checking or editing. As you’ve probably learned for yourself, verifying the attribution of a quotation is a particular challenge because misattributions seem to multiply exponentially — giving rise to memes like the classic at left (variations of which have also been attributed to Mark Twain, among others).
Copyeditors generally do our fact-checking on the fly and with the help of a search engine. We develop a sixth sense for determining the reliability of sites we’ve never visited before. (Hint: This often involves the quality of both writing and design. If the copy is riddled with typos and strange punctuation, I’ll move on PDQ. Ditto with any site that uses white type against a dark background.)
We also develop a sixth sense for what facts in a manuscript need to be checked. When starting a new job, I’ll fact-check a few names and dates to get a feel for how careful the author is. If the author seems reliable (as is usually the case in the stuff I work on), I’ll look up anything that smells funny and spot-check facts here and there just for the hell of it.
Ultimately writers are responsible for the accuracy of their facts, but a book-length work of nonfiction involves a myriad of facts, and it’s all too easy to transpose letters in a name or figures in a number and wind up with a goof.
Writers whose work is based on research do plenty of fact-checking while they’re writing. Written sources may contain errors, or contradict each other, or be superseded by later works.
I think the journalists have it hardest. Many of their sources are living people talking about events that have just happened. These informants bring different perspectives to the event, they see it from different angles, some are more observant than others — and some may be deliberately shading or hiding what they know, for reasons they’re unlikely to be upfront about and may even be unaware of. And the journalists are generally working on deadlines that don’t leave time for leisurely fact-checking.
In this age of spin and “fake news” each of us has to do our own fact-checking. Because we rarely have the time or inclination to check every fact, we generally focus on the source, the news outlet: if it’s got a good track record, it’s probably because its reporters, editors, and fact-checkers are on the ball. When they screw up, our faith is shaken. Was this an aberration, or are they going down the tubes?
At least in our wiser moments, good editors and writers know that 100% accuracy is impossible, but that doesn’t stop us from expecting it of ourselves and of those we respect, and from turning on anyone who doesn’t live up to our expectations.
In my weekly newspaper days I quickly learned that if we spelled the name of someone’s child or grandchild wrong, that person would remember it forever. Worse, it could easily become a cornerstone in that person’s conviction that the paper was careless with facts. It’s not hard to understand: misspellings and factual errors are easier to recognize than sloppy sourcing or sloppy writing, and they stick in the mind longer. It’s not fair, but there’s an upside to it: if you’re scrupulously accurate with your easy-to-check facts, your work will be more credible.
And when the liars, spammers, and misrepresenters catch on, we’re all in big trouble.