Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Why fact-checking matters

Several stories have surfaced lately about writers who have taken, let's say, liberties with facts, quotes, or other people's words. A couple of these incidents arose from work that appeared in books, but the most recent debacle centered on a national magazine, Newsweek. As the brouhaha boiled up, Newsweek noted that it does not use fact-checkers to vet the content of what it publishes:
"The magazine does not have a fact-checking department ... "we, like other news organisations today, rely on our writers to submit factually accurate material."
I'm not one to use exclamation marks often, but ... !!!

Facts, you see, are a low-rent commodity. What's more important these days, where the money needs to go, evidently, is to the Boldfaced Name Writers whose very byline can sell a story or a book. While they rake in sufficient funds to live off of what they write, careless of accuracy or sourcing or originality, other writers who perchance have a more precise and methodical approach to ensuring the quality and originality of their prose sit unpaid and poor. Lots of us are, indeed, rather poor. Regardless of our methods, however, we all need fact-checking, badly.

I'd like to think that facts and accuracy are still worth something to the people who read what nonfiction writers write. The saying is that you shouldn't believe everything you read. Have we now reached the point at which we shouldn't and can't believe anything we read? Savvy consumers with time on their hands and good Google fu can do their own fact-checking. Yet even they may have to get into some meta-meta-fact-checking given that even "trustworthy" publications have demonstrated how very little they care about promoting that trust by ensuring confirmed and accurate information.

How much is the erosion of trust worth? What does Newsweek, for example, have to gain from publishing inflammatory and inaccurate articles, ending up on the defensive in the face of some impressive and highly public correctives? Was it really worth it, Newsweek, not to pay someone to check the facts first? 

I do three jobs for money: writing, editing, and fact-checking. The least well-paid of these is fact-checking. My fact-checking work requires meticulous analysis of research papers, the intent of phrases, interpretation of statistics, and the standard confirmation that digits haven't been reversed in values. I do this work for continuing medical education courses targeting specialty physicians. If my client hadn't hired me to do this work, the level of inaccuracy and downright misinformation that these physicians would receive would not only be indefensible, it could even be dangerous. I've identified mistyped dosage levels and frequencies for medications and misinterpreted conclusions from papers that could have affected clinical decision-making. The fact-checks that I return to my client are cluttered with comments from word one through the conclusion. 

The thing is, each of these courses has a writer, a writer who is an MD with expertise in the specialty at hand. But even experts can screw up, mistype, misinterpret, and miscalculate, sometimes in critical ways. I love the fact-checking work because I feel like I am serving as a detective for the truth, on a small but important scale. As any writer with sufficient humility can tell you, a second and third set of eyes on anything we write is critical. As any writer with sufficient experience can tell you, even when we have deep expertise in our subjects, we can make glaring and embarrassing mistakes, and having someone else check our facts against original sources and interviews is a huge comfort ... and a safety net for everyone involved.

As a behind-the-curtains detective for the truth, I have a hard time understanding why high-profile publications that already suffer from audience erosion would take the chance of screwing up major stories by not having them fact-checked. Fact-checkers don't get a king's salary. Is the loss of your audience's trust in your publication really worth that level of nickel-and-diming?

1 comment:

  1. "Is the loss of your audience's trust in your publication really worth that level of nickel-and-diming" I wondered the very same thing on the blog that brought me here (MtMB). Does Newsweek enjoy the increased page views or will they regret the damage to the brand? One thing for sure is that the writer in question will be enjoying his wingnut welfare, which exceeds the salary of many kings.

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