I’m pretty sure a fact-checking essay in 2020 is expected to be about the all-stars [CHECK] like CNN’s Daniel Dale [CONFIRMED], or how the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” column [CHECK] decides the number of Pinocchios [CHECK] awarded to a story.
But in my decade [CHECK: 1989 to 1998 is nine years] as a fact-checker [CHECK: job title was reporter and then editor] at Time Inc. [CONFIRMED], the work was precise, intense, and tedious [WRITER OPINION].
During my brief stint at Sports Illustrated and nearly a decade at Life magazine (back in the days of print), we checked every single piece of editorial content in an issue—every noun, adjective, and verb; every lede and kicker; every hed, dek, subhed, pull quote, directional, and byline—from the cover, the table of contents, and the masthead, to the features, profiles, columns, and sections.
We made sure that captions matched their images, and if that image happened to include text, such as in graffiti or a billboard, we checked those words as well. When we ran a photo of Arabic graffiti as part of our Gulf War coverage, I showed it to the religion reporter at Time magazine, 20 floors above us, who spoke the language. He confirmed the text was political, did not contain curses, and, perhaps most important, the image wasn’t flipped.
Fact-checking could be like a treasure hunt. I spent hours on the phone chasing down the world’s greatest Nabokov experts, trying to confirm a specific incident in a specific short story. The writer was certain it was Nabokov; the experts knew it wasn’t—and thankfully that section was cut before I had to weigh in.
Sometimes fact-checking took me to strange places. When I was checking a story about Guns N’ Roses, I put on my trench coat and walked into Times Square to see whether there really was a magazine called Big Butts. No, said the proprietor of the first newsstand I stopped at; he had Big Boobs and Big Bottoms but no Big Butts. I let the writer keep it anyway.
Despite the occasional cheap thrills, I grew to loathe fact-checking as derivative and vicarious. But years later I can see that everything I learned—from some of the best magazine editors, writers, copy editors, photographers, and designers in the country—I still use every day in my writing and editing.
That’s because the exacting process of examining a piece of text word by word, whether a two-name byline or a 10,000-word feature, is excellent training for every editorial job, whether writing, copyediting, or developmental editing. My job required me to be both utterly literal and attuned to nuance and subtlety, so I developed a sensitivity for language that forces me even today to balance technicalities with poetry. If the writer calls a dress teal and the catalogue describes it as blue, which do I go with? And was it a dress or a jumper?
I had to be prepared to defend or concede my every decision to everyone involved, from the writer and editors to the copy editors and designers. Not just facts—I grew to understand that how text was placed on a page, jostling for space with images, in fonts of various sizes and types, could also affect the veracity of a story.
At Time Inc., a fact-check was complete when every single word had a red-pencil slash through it, indicating it had been confirmed—and a red slash through every letter in every name, including punctuation.
The teal dress, the slow bus, the rainy evening, the spicy stew, 25,000 demonstrators, Great Expectations, Jane Austen, the president’s age—all would get underlined to be researched. That 5,000-word Life magazine feature could take three solid weeks to fact-check—and an investigative New Yorker piece of the same length no doubt takes far longer.
Truth be told, if the writer resisted changing their language—if the spicy stew was really a thick soup—well, “writer’s opinion” often sufficed. As much as I like to soapbox about the truth, my real goal as a fact-checker was to prove the writer correct—in addition to keeping the magazine out of libel suits, of course. I strived not to change anything that I didn’t have to. In hundreds of assignments over nine years I was in zero court cases (Time Inc. had very good lawyers) and had only five mistakes.
The first one was in a fall 1989 issue of Sports Illustrated. An NHL player’s name had appeared incorrectly in “For the Record,” the one-page, back-of-the-book, tiny-print weekly listings. I hadn’t caught it. Thankfully, the chief of reporters, who terrified me, hadn’t either, and the hockey reporter who brought the error to my attention did so discreetly.
And there was my first lesson: no one wants their name spelled wrong. The truth matters.
Is fact-checking part of the job? Make sure the expectation is clear at the start of a project. A formal fact-checking process is a full-time job and should not be confused with copyediting. I mostly copyedit 500- to 1,000-word stories today, and as part of my checklist, I usually confirm proper nouns and general facts. When I find a fact that seems beyond the scope of my assignment or I don’t have time to run it down, I make a note in the text.
The internet is your friend. Check facts online or use the resources you have on hand. Going to a library, city hall, an archives, etc., is research and, in my opinion, above and beyond unless you have a specific agreement.
Choose your naming authorities. A term I adopted from library school, naming authorities are my impeccable sources for names. They vary depending on what type of name I’m looking for—an individual; a company; a title of a movie, book, or poem. For people, I use profile pages on organizational sites and personal websites. I usually avoid social media to check names.
Develop your list of “red check” sources. IMDb is great for confirming which classmate turns invisible in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or how many TV shows Brad Pitt has appeared in. The Poetry Foundation is a better place to look for a line of poetry than quote aggregators. I always check the titles of books, in part because their authors often get them wrong. Alas, the CDC website is no longer reliable.
A note about Wikipedia: Wikipedia is a safe source for details about Buffy episodes and other non-political topics, such as a list of Pulitzer Prize winners, the plot of Great Expectations, or the periodic table. Take care, though. Because Wikipedia can be edited by anyone at any time, the content, especially for controversial topics, can be unreliable.
Check out other sources. The AP Stylebook entry on misinformation, BuzzFeed’s entry on QAnon, Conscious Style Guide on lots of things—style guides have excellent resources for sorting out fact from fiction. The Poynter Institute offers political fact-checking resources, as does the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s FactCheck.org.
Fact-Checker, Fact-Checker, Check Me a Fact was originally published in Tracking Changes (Fall 2020 edition). Members receive a PDF of the quarterly Tracking Changes newsletter by email.
Header photo by Ahmed Zayan on Unsplash.