Whenever I watch a 1960s movie about the publishing industry, I often imagine there will be a scene in a cavernous room with row upon row of desks, walls lined with reference material and filled with workers dutifully fact-checking every word in the magazine.
That’s one picture of fact-checking.
Today when you think of fact-checking, you are more likely to envision a reporter at Snopes, Politifact or the Washington Post, checking the truth of some politician’s statement and serving up a Pinocchio or burning fact meter.
That’s another picture of fact-checking.
But the truth is that any person doing editing, of any type, might be called on to do fact-checking work. That’s right — even if you’re editing a dystopian novel about a virus that changes humanity.
And whether you’re editing a news story or a textbook or a press release or a church bulletin, the underpinnings of fact-checking are the same — basic verification skills.
“I’m editing marketing material all day, why should I fact-check?” you might ask.
Well, it’s about credibility with your audience, whoever that is. Errors break the reader’s trust.
It’s about the details and getting them right. Accuracy is as important in a cookbook or a public notice as it is in a news story.
One question some editors face is how much of your job should be fact-checking. And that’s not always clear.
You may work at an office where someone else is expected to provide the fact-check. Or your freelance contract may specify that you don’t provide that service.
Editors need to be clear on those details at the start of a project. But you should expect that an overall edit or a traditional copy edit will include at least some fact-checking.
So what tools do you use for fact-checking?
The Internet? Books? Interviews? Actual observation?
Good editors use all of these and any other tool that will help them make sure something is accurate. I once drove to a certain street corner to make sure that a building was on the side of the street that a writer said it was on. (Of course, you have to be in the right city and not be on a tight deadline to make that work. You could also try Google Earth.)
But there’s an underlying question here: How do you know the resources you’re using to check accuracy are accurate themselves?
One way is to evaluate every resource you come across using established credibility cues.
You need to identify each cue that applies, collect evidence about it and decide if that evidence contributes to or detracts from the overall credibility of that piece of information.
In other words, determining credibility is not as simple as looking up something on Wikipedia or the first website you come to. The best method means independently verifying each fact with more than one source.
One source can easily be wrong. Two unconnected sources that agree are more likely to be correct.
Let’s look at an example you might encounter if you are editing a cookbook. This specific cookbook introduces each recipe with a short story on the origin of that dish.
When you get to the recipe for English Muffins, the headnote says “interestingly enough English muffins were not first baked in England, but were created in the 1880s when a British man moved to New York and changed the recipe for a scone.”
This is information you need to fact-check. How would you do it?
You could do a Google search for the history of the English muffin. If you type that into a search bar, you are likely to find this story from the website Kitchn.com: “The English Muffin is Not English at All.”
The story would confirm what your cookbook author wrote, but is that story accurate? To figure that out, you need to check out the website’s publisher, the author, the content of the article and the article’s sources, for sure.
And you need to find an unconnected source that says the same thing.
In this case, you might start to wonder when you check the sources used in the article. At least one has no information on the origin of the English Muffin recipe. Another seems to indicate that the only thing American about the recipe is the name (in other words, the recipe long existed in England, but it was just called muffins at that time).
One thing to consider is semantics: Is the article saying an American created the recipe or just invented the name English muffin?
I haven’t solved the entire English muffin mystery yet. But I have tracked down enough information to know that I would have to query this cookbook author to reconsider the headnote, because the tale told can’t be correct.
Google Books has an entry from a book published in 1823 in Manchester, England, that clearly includes the recipe for what we call English muffins today.
And a search of historic newspapers on Newspapers.com finds this:
Note that this help-wanted ad for an English muffin baker is from a newspaper printed in 1862.
This example also shows why it’s important to fact-check books. A reader who knows the story about English muffins is confusing probably won’t believe the recipe that follows either.
And if you’re thinking, “well I edit fiction, I never need to fact-check,” you’re wrong. If readers scoff at the murder mystery that features a victim killed by a nonpoisonous liquid, they are unlikely to buy that author’s next book.
Conan Tobias, editor-in-chief of Taddle Creek, a Canadian literary journal, put it this way: “There are facts in fiction as well, and it’s perfectly valid [to check them]. … If you have a real-world name in there you want to have it right. Why have it wrong?”
Even the made-up things in a dystopian world may be based on real science. So a fact-check is in order.
In fact, some freelancers have thriving businesses offering fact-checking services.
What else should editors of novels fact-check: in historical fiction, anything based on a real event or timeframe; any passage that involves the names of real people, places or entities; any book that has bits of reality sprinkled in it, be it about history, technology, society or the human experience.
And if you can’t find information about those things on a search engine? Think outside the web box and consider going beyond to find the information.
Call an expert. Find archives that aren’t on the web. Go to a location to check it out. Go to the original source. For instance, you might need to listen to an audio interview or watch a movie that will help answer a question about that movie.
The key is don’t give up too soon. The information is usually out there.
Remember, it’s necessary that the details be correct. Sometimes making sure that they are can take time. But it’s worth it.