Facts matter, so get them right (and three reasons why we tend to fail at this important task)

One of the early exercises I do in a reporting class is to provide students with a series of “facts” and ask them to check on their accuracy. If they are correct, the students need to say so and tell me where they found the information. If they are incorrect, they need to say so, explain what is wrong, correct it and then tell me where they found the information.

It’s a simple assignment that involves basically Googling things. It requires no predicate knowledge of journalism or any writing skills other than basic written communication.
Most of them fail.
This came to mind in reading the New York Times’ piece on how factual inaccuracies are plaguing the publishing industry. The article explains that fact-checking practices aren’t standard across companies, or even books. The publisher points at the author in a lot of cases, saying it’s up to that person to be right all the time:

While in the fallout of each accuracy scandal everyone asks where the fact checkers are, there isn’t broad agreement on who should be paying for what is a time-consuming, labor-intensive process in the low-margin publishing industry.
“The standard line from publishers is, ‘We rely on our authors,’ and, well, that’s not good enough,” said Gabriel Sherman, a journalist who paid two fact checkers $100,000 from his advance for his 2014 book, “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” about Roger E. Ailes and Fox News. “I wish publishers did see the importance of fact-checking as essentially an insurance policy.
The idea that fact checking is one of those things that costs too much, is too hard and takes too long is a dumb one, primarily because without things being right, nothing else matters.

Think about it this way: Would you want your surgeon to say, “OK, we can do a heart repair, but it’s really hard to do it while it’s still in the body, it’ll take a long time and really I’m not sure how much money I’m going to make on this, so let’s rip it out of the body and figure things out from there…” or would you prefer that the doctor keep you alive?

Put another way, it’s like not paying for a hockey goalie because, “Well, we have all these other players on the ice who should be able to stop the stupid puck from getting in the goal.”

That’s not how anything works.

I am borderline paranoid about facts when it comes to the textbooks you read that have my name on them. Part of that is fear of being wrong and having an industry full of instructors who used to be part of an industry full of watchdog journalists pulling apart my content and ripping me to shreds. Part of it is the idea that if you’re paying for something I did, you should get the best possible version of whatever it is I’m doing.

An even bigger part of it comes back to something my father told me when I went off to college: “Don’t bring shame on the family. It’s my name, too.”

Thus, I try to practice what I preach: I edit my stuff like it’s someone else’s and that person doesn’t know anything. I assume every fact I have in there is wrong until I can prove it to be true. I imagine instructors I ardently disliked as a student or a colleague mocking me in front of people and I strive to prevent that from happening.

When you work on a project of any length, it goes through multiple versions and a massive number of edits. A short version is this:

  • I write the chapters, edit them and rewrite them before sending them to the publisher.
  • The company sends them out for review, where people pick apart the drafts.
  • I rewrite the chapters, re-edit the chapters and rewrite them again and send them back.
  • The company then sends them out to a professional copy editor who asks a ton of questions and sends them back to me.
  • I rewrite the chapters, re-edit the chapters and rewrite them again before I send them back to the copy editor.
  • The copy editor then checks on all of my fixes, asks any additional questions and sends them back.
  • I answer all the questions, rewrite the chapters, edit them one more time and send them back to the copy editor. If the copy editor is happy, the chapters get sent to the publisher.
  • The publisher then sends them for page layout where a proofer looks over everything, asks more questions and sends me the pages for another look.
  • I answer the questions, fix the pages, rewrite some stuff and send them back.
  • If the proofer is happy, the pages go to press. If not, they come back to me for one more edit.

Still, even with all this, stuff still goes wrong and errors occur. We have found typos in spots, minor errors that need “clarifications” and other similar issues. I’m knocking on a giant pile of redwood right now as I say, so far, we’ve avoided any massive fact errors.

The reason we make mistakes at this level, and probably even when I was a reporter, comes down to a few simple things. The major problem is that even knowing this, the best we can hope to do is mitigate the errors, as we’ll never stop them entirely. Here’s my list:

  • OF COURSE I’M SURE! WAIT… DAMMIT…: When you spend enough time in any particular field, you become sure of yourself and your experience. That’s natural and normal. However, in that case, you also tend to misremember things and delude yourself into believing you know you are right about stuff.Case in point: last week, I wrote about a censorship issue and noted that we had something happen when I was an adviser at Ball State. Someone stole our press run because we ran a story about a member of the women’s soccer team being arrested. I noted that it was the goalie, something I’d said dozens of times, if not more. I was SURE it was the damned goalie because I was there, I remembered the kid’s name and I could even see the mugshot in my mind’s eye.

    Turns out, I was wrong. I got a text from a reader who was on staff at the time, telling me the player was actually a defensive midfielder, not the goalie. He sent me a link to the original story that I had trouble finding when I went looking. Sure enough, I was wrong. I made the fix but I felt like an idiot and I wondered what else I’ve been telling people over the years that has been off a bit.

    The point of the story was still valid, but the details being wrong undermined my credibility and it really bothered me. I knew that I should look it up or that’s what I would have told a student who was writing it. However, as the “expert” on the topic, I figured I was fine.

    Good rule of thumb that I should have followed: Treat every statement like it’s wrong and then prove yourself right.


  • GOING BLIND: When you work on a project for a protracted period of time, you read it over and over and over and over again to the point that you no longer are actually reading what’s on the page. I explained this to someone as “going blind to it,” meaning that I can no longer see anything wrong with what I have done and thus me reading it again is useless.Probably the best money I ever spent in my life was the $60 I gave to a 19-year-old sophomore who worked on the Columbia Missourian’s copy desk. I gave her a check, a copy of the APA style guide and a copy of my dissertation and told her to go to town. She was initially hesitant, saying she didn’t know if she’d understand all the stats and the lingo I was dumping in this thing. I told her I didn’t need her to reanalyze the data; I needed her to look for the patently stupid mistakes I was sure I made.

    She found plenty: repeated words, style errors, sentences that started one way and went the other. I had four or five committee members, all with Ph.D.s, read draft after draft of this and none of them said anything about this stuff. They, too, had apparently gone blind to these things.

    A lot of publications are cutting copy editors or additional line editors or other folks whose job it is to backstop the work to increase profits and (theoretically) reduce redundancies. The problem with that is that we’re not looking at them to do the same job the same way as everyone else did. It’s their fresh eyes and new perspective that matter the most, especially when coupled with those job skills they possess.


  • IT WAS FINE LAST TIME: A long time before I started writing books, I remember talking to one of the guys who wrote a book I had long used in my classes. He came into my office and asked how far back, edition-wise, I had copies of his book. He was working on Edition 10, I believe, and I had everything back to Edition 4. He took each one off the shelf, flipped to a single example and said, “Well, I’ll be damned…”It turned out that someone had emailed him about a mistake in an example and asked if he could correct it for the next edition. Being the long-time journalist he was, he wondered how long that error had been there, given the example had been repeated in multiple editions. Turns out it was there as far back as his fourth edition, so if you do the math, it’s probably more than 15 years. How it took this long for one person to bring it up boggles the mind.

    Or maybe not. The idea of inertia tends to creep into what we do when it comes to repetitive processes. It’s why we’re stunned that we get pulled over for speeding (shout out to Rosendale) for going five miles over, even though we’ve never been stopped for this kind of thing before. “Nobody ever said anything, so I guess it was all right,” is a weak excuse for the cop at your window and it’s even worse for not checking on a fact.

    In journalism, we are writing the “first draft of history” to borrow a phrase, so in many cases, we need to update that draft. Sometimes people who are healthy at Time A die at Time B. Sometimes court cases we use as examples of something get settled or overturned. Still, the idea that it worked the last time tends to make us think it’s fine now. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

When it comes to your writing, or mine for that matter, the point that we’re not going to be perfect goes without saying. However, aspiring to reach that point will keep us in the game and hopefully prevent the massive screw ups.

That leads me to the last point: When you see something, say something. A professor at a college in New Mexico (name escapes me) gave his writing class extra credit if they found any errors in my textbook, which he was using for the course. I got a couple emails about typos and one about something I wrote that didn’t make sense. I fixed all of that for the second edition and was grateful.

I know when you’re editing someone else’s work, you don’t want to look like the picky weasel or the grammar dork or anything like that, so you let it slide. Don’t. This isn’t eBay feedback. It’s important that you’re honest, accurate and clear. It’s better the thing gets fixed now than after everyone else on Earth reads it and there’s no hope of going back.

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