Is That a Fact?
How to Read a Piece for the First Time
When you prepare to read any piece for fact-checking, make certain you have the latest revision of the piece in your hands; there's no reason to struggle through eighteen pages of galleys that have already been cut to ten by an editor. Read with a skeptical eye. If you like to make notes in the margin as you read, go ahead, but do not begin to mark facts systematically during this preliminary reading. Don't concentrate on the individual facts presented. Focus on the structure of the piece as a whole. This is the time to notice its varying degrees of rhetorical success and any obvious flaws in logic. Once you begin to check the facts, it becomes more difficult to concentrate on the writer's encompassing argument.
The first reading is not exactly fact-checking, but it may lead to a very useful understanding of the fact challenges posed by the piece. Your response to the piece will also help you anticipate where the editor may cut or revise it and where you should focus your efforts. The editor will almost certainly ask you what you thought of the piece, and you might as well start off your collaboration by indicating that you understand the big picture as well as the details you'll be discussing and perhaps arguing over later in the checking process.
What to Notice During a First Reading
- In a general way, do you find the piece credible and persuasive? Does the author seem well informed? If you yourself know little about the subject of the piece, you may want to skim other sources for articles and information before you try to make an assessment.
- How does the piece compare to other articles you may have read on the same topic? If you think that the issues have been addressed similarly elsewhere, you will want to confirm your recollection and then make sure the editor is aware of the precedent.
- Does the author's perspective seem notably biased or skewed? If so, you will need to be particularly diligent in fact-checking and should be prepared to go beyond the author's sources to get a more balanced perspective.
- Do any sections of the writing seem lifeless? They may need to be rewritten. You may want to check other areas of the piece before these dull ones, as they may change significantly.
Occasionally, flat writing can be a tip-off that an author is parroting someone else's ideas. When you contact the author after your second reading of the piece, ask that he or she identify sources for all unattributed information.
- Does any of the writing make questionable exaggerations? Hyperbolic assertions tend to disintegrate under checking scrutiny, so if the greater argument of the piece depends on suspiciously grand claims, beware. Plan to check these claims early, so the author and editor will have time to do the rewriting your checking may necessitate.
The Second Reading
During your second reading of the piece you will decide what needs to be checked. This time, take a colored pencil or pen, and as you read, underline statements of fact in the article. These should include any proper names; place names; references to time, distance, date, season; physical descriptions; references to the sex of anyone described (names can be deceiving); quotations; and any arguments or narrative that depend on fact.
Determining What to Check in Nonfiction
In principle, determining what to check is straightforward. Take these sentences from John McPhee's 1968 book The Pine Barrens. Even before the checker has spoken to McPhee about his source material, she will have a general sense of what her checking will entail.
If all the impounding reservoirs, storage reservoirs, and distribution reservoirs in the New York City water system were filled to capacity-from Neversink and Schoharie to the Croton basin and Central Park-the Pine Barrens aquifer would still contain thirty times as much water. So little of this water is used that it can be said to be untapped. Its constant temperature is fifty-four degrees, and in the language of the hydrological report on the Pine Barrens prepared in 1966 for the United States Geological Survey, "it can be expected to be bacterially sterile, odorless, clear; its chemical purity approaches that of uncontaminated rain-water or melted glacier ice."
Each of these sentences should be underlined in red, because each constitutes a statement of fact. In the first sentence the checker will need to confirm that there are indeed impounding reservoirs, storage reservoirs, and distribution reservoirs in the New York City water system, and that Neversink, Schoharie, Croton basin, and Central Park are among those types of reservoirs in that system. The proper geographical names will have to be checked in a good atlas, such as the National Geographic Atlas of the World or a reputable state map. The quotation and details about the quality, temperature, and relative quantity of the Pine Barrens water must be checked against the survey McPhee mentions or against another reliable, preferably official source. Only one statement suggests speculation: "So little of this water is used that it can be said to be untapped." Perhaps this information comes from the survey, too, but if not, the checker will need to ask McPhee whether he has any sources that will support the assertion that the aquifer is effectively "untapped." If McPhee's argument is not wholly borne out by the sources he is able to provide or if his sources do not seem appropriately authoritative, the checker will ask him for the name of an expert on watersheds or find one through an environmental or governmental organization.
As far as these initial readings can suggest, McPhee's facts seem pretty hard. There is not much in the above excerpt to make the checker question the author's bias or argument. A sample from Joan Didion's beautifully written essay "Los Angeles Notebook," another nonfiction work, is slightly more worrying from the fact checker's point of view:
A party at someone's house in Beverly Hills: a pink tent, two orchestras, a couple of French Communist directors in Cardin evening jackets, chili and hamburgers from Chasen's. The wife of an English actor sits at a table alone; she visits California rarely although her husband works here a good deal. An American who knows her slightly comes over to the table.
"Marvelous to see you here," he says.
"Is it," she says.
"How long have you been here?"
She takes a fresh drink from a passing waiter and smiles at her husband, who is dancing.
The American tries again. He mentions her husband.
"I hear he's marvelous in this picture."
She looks at the American for the first time. When she finally speaks she enunciates every word very clearly. "He . . . is . . . also . . . a . . . fag," she says pleasantly.
As in the McPhee, a checker would underline every sentence to signify that these descriptions, characterizations, names, and quotations must be verified. The job facing the checker looks to be very different, however. With the help of the author's notes or perhaps by checking with another guest or the hosts, the checker will have to confirm that the party was actually in Beverly Hills, rather than in some adjacent neighborhood, and that there was a pink tent, orchestras (were there really two?), chili and hamburgers from Chasen's (if that is in fact how the name is spelled), and dancing. The checker would also want to confirm that the party included at least two French Communist directors who were wearing Cardin (this might require calls to their personal assistants), and that waiters brought round trays of drinks to the guests.
This paragraph presents an obvious peril if the Englishwoman and her husband the actor are identifiable to themselves or to others. They would probably take great offense at his being outed in this way. The checker should also consider how Didion heard this conversation, since the actor's wife is described as sitting alone at her table before being approached by the American man with whom she subsequently speaks. Alerted to these issues, the checker would discuss them with the author at the earliest possible opportunity, so that the editor and legal counsel will be able to make a decision about whether, or how, to keep the anecdote in the piece.
When the Author Is an Expert
People who write about specialized subjects such as law, medicine, or science are often experts in their fields. For the most part, this does not mean that they can be considered the sole authority for their writing any more than the ordinary journalist can. Plan to check everything except those facts that only the author of the piece can confirm. If a doctor is describing her treatment of a patient, she can describe the treatment without having to provide evidence of every interaction included in the piece. (She should have made an agreement with the patient allowing the case to be discussed.) But beware of taking the author's word for too much. Perhaps because such expert writers are used to writing for academic publications, they often dumb down their reporting for an audience of laypeople. A little simplification is usually a good thing, but too much can be a disaster. In an article on the genetic sources of certain breast and reproductive organ cancers, a leading specialist failed to distinguish between two culpable genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2. Assuming that his lay readers wouldn't care for such nice distinctions, he referred to them as if they were a single gene. Fortunately, his fact checker read related medical studies and discovered why the difference between the genes was significant. He made a late change to correct references throughout the piece and prevented the dissemination of a misrepresentation.
Checkers underline and verify the facts in reviews of books, films, theater, dance, music, art exhibitions, and restaurants just as they would other nonfiction, being particularly vigilant when checking negative reviews. When checkers are not able to see a performance, exhibition, or movie for themselves, checking can be accomplished with the help of playbills, press kits, catalogs, and public relations people. The latter are often impatient and poorly informed, however, so it is preferable to use them as a last resort.
Book reviews can present interesting difficulties. In general, they are easy to check, because critics tend to write them using only the book under review and perhaps a few other printed sources. Problems often arise when the accuracy of the content of a nonfiction book is questionable. "Not every book reviewer . . . can or should plow through the original source material," Steve Brill, the founder and publisher of Brill's Content, asserts. "But serious book reviews about serious books should try to do some or a lot of that. It's called reporting." This is a tall order, but there is some legal incentive for that degree of caution. If a book under review makes a libelous assertion that the reviewer then validates and publishes in advance of the publication of the book, the publisher of the review may be held liable for the disputed facts.
After reading the piece through a couple of times, ask the editor of the piece if it is okay to call the author to discuss source material. Sometimes an editor will ask you to wait a day or so until the author has finished working on a new draft. You will need to consider the amount of time you think it will take you to check the piece. Is the proposed schedule for the piece realistic? If it is not feasible for you to do the work within the time allowed, can other checkers help you? If you think that waiting to talk to the author will still allow you enough time to check the piece before closing, fine. If not, you may need to persuade the editor or perhaps a superior or the department head to let you call right away.
When you call the author, consider whether she is familiar with the fact-checking process. Be as explicit as possible about what source material you want. It's a good idea to ask for more than you need. For instance, if the author has tape recordings of interviews but wants you to call the sources to go over the facts in their quotes, arrange to get the tapes as well as the sources' telephone numbers even though the tapes may seem unnecessary. You may find you need the tapes if you cannot reach a particular person or if the person denies saying something the author has written.
Tell the author exactly how you want the source material to be delivered. This, too, will depend on the length of time you have to complete the checking. All the sources for a short and straightforward piece might be sent by fax and e-mail. A longer, more complicated piece will almost always necessitate having more complex source material delivered to you by messenger, mail, or expedited service.
The Author's Responsibility to the Checker
Fact-checking protocol will vary from publication to publication, but in general, the author will provide sources of some kind to support all factual assertions. Sources can range from cocktail napkins scribbled with notes to tapes of interviews, transcripts, newspaper or magazine clippings, books, or other reference material, as well as videotapes. (If the tapes are foreign you may have to allow extra time to have them reformatted for your video system.) You'll need the telephone numbers and possibly the e-mail addresses of the people she spoke to. The author should be prepared to help you find facts within the source material. She may want to talk you through the sources, highlight relevant passages in printed materials or transcripts, or annotate the most recent draft of the piece, citing the sources for each fact. Invariably, the author will not be able to provide adequate sources for every fact in the piece. You will have to discuss possible new sources for these facts and in many cases find them yourself. The author will arrange to be available to the checker to discuss sources and suggested changes and to answer any questions the checker may have. (For more on the author/checker relationship, see Chapter Three.)
Assessing Source Materials
Finding and evaluating sources is probably the most important work that fact checkers and writers do, because the quality of the source material used in writing and checking a piece determines the accuracy and breadth of the published work. With sources, the tasks of the checker and the author are more than compatible. They're identical. As a former head of research at Vanity Fair says, "A good fact checker is basically a good reporter." Finding good sources is like a treasure hunt. For many checkers it's the most enjoyable aspect of their work, and it's great training for writers.
Excerpted from The Fact Checker's Bible by Sarah Harrison Smith Copyright © 2004 by Sarah Harrison Smith. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.