Digging Into Fact-Checking

By Cathy Jones

In publishing, the fact-checker’s role varies by type of manuscript and organization. For example, some publishers have their writers upload their data, notes, and interview recordings for the fact-checkers. Others employ full-time staffers who call each source personally and go over the quotes and other pertinent information in the piece. If fact-checkers need to verify quoted material from scientific studies, online logins to libraries or academic journal repositories are likely necessary. And entire seminars can be given on search strategies to find the best sources and original sources.

So, where to start? At the beginning, of course.

On person writing in a notepad while another types on a laptop

I was born persnickety. It’s a good thing, too, for my chosen career is working with words every day, striving to get things right. Most days I fill this role as an editor, but some days I wear the fact-checking hunting cap instead: same goals, different job.

Copyeditors routinely check names and math, whether they’re editing fiction or nonfiction. We flag inconsistencies in logic and may quickly look up an occasional fact, just to satisfy a nagging question, but that’s not the bulk of the copyeditor’s work.

The fact-checking role is the flip side of the copyeditor’s job. The mission of fact-checking is not only to dig into all the things that sound funny or involve math but also to investigate any statement with a number, a date, an event, or a proper noun of some kind—anything that’s not an opinion, a widely accepted generalization, or common knowledge. Fact-checkers don’t worry as much about the commas and redundancies but rather focus on the content of the statements. Finding primary sources, not just articles about the primary sources, is essential, as those pieces may have oversimplified a study’s conclusions, taken a quote out of context, transposed a figure, or gotten the ratios wrong (though secondary sources certainly can help clarify the scientific jargon in a dense paper, and they often link to the source).

To verify material in primary sources, sites such as Google Scholar, Google Books, Project Gutenberg, Internet Archive, HathiTrust, the National Institutes of Health, the United Nations, the World Bank, Pew Research Center, CIA World Factbook, and even Amazon Look Inside come in very handy. When verifying epigraphs, avoid websites solely dedicated to reproducing famous quotations.

It’s good to be dogged and to keep track of the sources used for verification, as incorrect notions can linger in the ether, especially when repeated widely. Did Marie Antoinette really say, “Let them eat cake?” Actually, no, though a lot of sources may perpetuate the myth.

The majority of the time, reputable websites of publications such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, Time, the Guardian, the Independent, and online international and regional media outlets (CNN, PBS, and the BBC, etc.) get it right. That being said, it helps to have multiple independent news sites saying the same thing just to make sure (and the best sites often link to the primary sources). If an error is found, news outlets will update their stories and often list what precisely was corrected. You don’t always get that attention to follow-up on blogs or organizations’ websites.

Like editors, fact-checkers look for shades of meaning and precision in language but with the goal of quelling any inaccuracies. Did a certain person coin a phrase or popularize a phrase? Was The Hunchback of Notre-Dame completed in January 1831 or published then? There’s a difference, and the fact-checker looks it all up. It can be a real chase at times to find authoritative sources that agree.

In research-heavy pieces, the fact-checking round often occurs simultaneously with the copyediting work. The changes by fact-checker and copyeditor are then merged by the editor in charge of the project in preparing the file that goes to layout and then to the proofreaders. That editor is the one who makes the judgment calls on having an author provide a source for an item flagged unverifiable, striking a sentence, and letting you know how detailed the fact-checking needs to be in the first place.

For editors who haven’t yet expanded into the role of fact-checker, rest assured you already have the skills. As an editor (or proofreader) you’re detail oriented, strive for consistency, have high standards for things to be right and logical, and employ critical-thinking skills as you read. You probably already know some advanced Google search tips too. All of these talents come into play when examining a manuscript—and potential sources, which may be biased, outdated, or poorly researched. You probably also have a good memory for random bits and pieces, which can come in handy when searching.

My fact-checking work has come in arenas as varied as hard news, feature articles on global issues and charities, and advice pieces on personal finance, as well as updates of social studies and science texts for elementary and middle school students. So not only am I attempting to dig up the facts to make sure they’re correct and weren’t misinterpreted (or that the quotes don’t have an agenda that needs context to balance them out), I’m often also trying to find out if those facts are still current—pretty important when the piece discusses the sciences or news. Just look at how quickly information is being revised during the search for understanding of COVID-19. Most topics don’t change quite that fast, fortunately.

Just like editing, fact-checking is a satisfying gig, as the job supports both the author’s credibility and the readers’ understanding. It’s work that fades invisibly into the background, just like good editing and proofing, and it’s a valued and valuable mission.

Cathy Jones is an editor with more than two decades of experience in publishing, including education, news journalism, magazine publishing, marketing materials, online articles, and nonfiction and fiction books. People hire her for her knowledge, thoroughness, attention to detail, organizational skills, and high quality control standards.

This article originally appeared in Networking News, the Professional Editors Network’s members-only newsletter. Join PEN today to get every issue of the newsletter in your inbox—plus access to our archive of past issues.

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