Since I have waded knee-deep into the world of journalism, that is, since someone got it in their head to pay me to come into work each day, sit at my desk and write, I have learned a great deal about facts. If someone was to ask me to describe professional writing, I might first call it a nightmare for the happy-go-lucky and the anal man’s delight. Note: This often applies to fiction, as well.
In other words, before you put your little darlings to bed at the end of the day, you’d better be sure that your information is correct, current and not going to land you in a lawsuit. In my career up to this point, I have only needed to print one retraction. Police acronyms can be a tricky business, particularly when one considers that the police and the office of the deputy commissioner are often just as confused as the novice reporter. They are also very helpful people, who genuinely want the public to know certain things, things like the fact that John Doe from Bayside was arrested for VOP.
At the time I had no idea what VOP might be, and the three-line brief wasn’t offering any clues. Thinking that the deputy commissioner’s office, which provides the briefs, would be able to enlighten me, I called and the nice man on the other end of the line informed me that VOP stands for violation of parole. Great, I thought, he sounds sure of himself. I wrote my story, placed the brief in backup and thought that was the end of it, until an angry John Doe showed up at the office demanding a retraction. Fifteen more minutes of searching and I found out that VOP more often stands for violation of an order of protection (usually domestic). Oops. Fox Mulder was right - trust no one.
Which brings me to my point. On everything2 as in journalism as in penning novels as in life, it’s always best to present names, dates, places, history, quotes, ideas and everything else with a degree of accuracy that would make your local science rag envious of your mad skizills. Doing so can assist in winning arguments, make you popular with the ladies and might just keep your posterior out of the courtroom.
To help ensure that you get your facts straight, here are a few of the tricks that the nice people at publications such as The New Yorker and Forbes, and publishers like The University of Chicago Press use every day to avoid embarrassing professional blunders.
Invest in a fine-toothed comb
Most of us, in or out of the business, do not have access to a team of 16 paid fact checkers like the reporters at The New Yorker (which pretty much sets the standards for accuracy in reporting), and that means we are our own first line of defense against inaccuracy. At my job, the incentive to making as few errors as possible is that we will not be fired. This obviously works well, but not everyone has a rabid editor-in-chief breathing down their neck. First, know what you’re talking about. If you’re going to review a film, see the film; always ask how to spell the names of the people you are talking to; double check all statistics; and, if necessary, go through stated facts one by one and verify them. Fact checking can be an excruciating task and the more facts you have, the harder it gets. Pay attention to detail and utilize as many sources as possible. For assistance in fact checking general information, the Journalist’s Toolbox (www.journaliststoolbox.com) has a list of helpful links.
The primaries and being wary of the web
Of course, when I said sources, what I really meant was that you should use primary, or first-hand, sources whenever possible. Primary sources will help minimize the chance that you are using erroneous information in your writing. These types of sources include speeches, interviews, letters, journals, memos, manuscripts, autobiographies, memoirs, photographs, records collected by government agencies, records of organizations and artifacts. After all, hearing from Jane that she likes you is much more exciting that hearing from Jane’s sister’s best-friend’s boyfriend that she totally hinted that she thinks you’re cute. If you remember playing telephone as a kid, you have a good idea of how information can be misinterpreted when Webmaster Joe takes information from an outdated text book that relied on secondary sources to make his page about the attempted assassination of Roosevelt by John Shrank. Or is it William Schrenk? Or John Schrenk? Try them in google. It’s frightening.
To help those out there who can’t bear to step away from their computers even though the Internet is full of inaccurate “primary source” information, the friendly people at the University of Idaho Library have out together a repository of links to primary source materials at http://www.uidaho.edu/special-collections/Other.Repositories.html. And to sweeten the deal, a company’s, band’s or person’s own website can be considered a primary source. Just make sure it’s up to date.
Coming in second can be okay, too
There is a world of difference between Chariots of the Gods by Erich Von Daniken and Mathat Al-Misri’s Egyptian Treasures from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. While I do like to dabble in the kooky world of Von Daniken, I do recognize the difference between his books and the writing of more serious archeologists when determining which source I might want to cite in an article about pyramids. When you’re thinking about using a secondary source, ask yourself a few questions. You might not know that certain publishers have more stringent fact checking criteria than others, but errors caused by the bungling hands of typists still do get by. A good rule of thumb is that if a book or article has consistent or blatant errors, it shouldn’t be considered a reliable source of information. To make matters worse, newspapers, especially dailies, misspell the names of people, places and things quite often. Use your best judgement when consulting secondary sources, but don’t let inaccuracies slip by because a book or magazine looked so professional that it couldn’t possibly be wrong.
Cultivate and use trusted sources...and then get a second opinion.
If you’re serious about being factual, and are more than a little intrigued with a single subject or genre, it is in your best interest to develop contacts within that field. Contacts like the misinformed police officer who was so eager to please that he gave me his best guess at VOP. If you don’t know the first thing about getting in touch with experts, who can do double duty providing quotes and verifying facts, try ProfNet at www3.profnet.com. ProfNet allows you to make a query and then will have an expert get in touch with you via phone or email. But trust no one absolutely, no matter how many fancy titles before their name, or expensive degrees after. People make mistakes, so have a backup plan if you’re unsure, which leads us to...
Raise your hand if you’re sure
A good rule of thumb might be, if you aren’t 100% sure that your story is accurate, do not publish. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Speculation, when it’s done by competent quoted sources, can mean that you are not sure if said fact is true, but in this case, you are not the one who said it. If someone challenged your use of the information, the easiest answer would be that they need to ask the person who supplied the quote. If you are writing an article about the city council planting groves of trees, and you don’t know the total amount planted so far, but your deadline is looming, find a way to say the same thing without quantifying. Always see if you can keep the flavor of what you’re writing without compromising your reputation by using unverified information. Can you leave it out? Can you say it differently? Do you have enough time to verify your information? These are the questions to ask before publication. Better to leave something out than have to print a correction later and risk a possible lawsuit.
Open-source journalism is just what it sounds like: making a factual article available to experts and regular people, so that it can reviewed and corrected before publication. Some call it the future, a panacea that will solve all of the problems with old school journalism, and the ultimate in fact-checkery. It does offer the benefits of inexpensive or even free proofreading and isn’t that different from the usual pre-publication review that all scholarly articles go through. Much of the opposition to open-source journalism claims that the practice would hinder the “here and now” feel of news reporting, which has traditionally written the facts of the moment and then printed corrections later. Regardless of what you are writing, open-source can be a useful tool when fact checking, though it is by no means necessary and, if you are faced with a deadline, incoming criticism from a large number of people can be more of a hassle than helpful.
For those looking for a step-by-step procedure to ensure that their factual articles are squeaky clean, the bad news is that there is not a hard and fast industry standard. There are fact checking manuals galore, individual standards and style guides to help you on your quest for accuracy, but true expertise will only come through developing one’s own fact checking style and maintaining vigilance. According to Clay Risen’s article “The Facts of Life” in The Morning News, faulty calculations, failure to attribute quotes and misspellings are most often due to laziness on the part of the author than a malicious spirit. The best method is finding a system that works for you, and whether you’re sending your dad a review of the morning news, or you’re writing on spec for Bon Appetit, use just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.
Another primary source index:
Another thing you might want to consider, especially here and especially now, is whether the material any quoted material you may be using is legal. Find out how to make sure at E2 Quest: Copyright Redemption
or ask Content_Salvage
. /shameless plug