It was a low moment, the kind most writers remember for a long time. I was sitting at my desk, wrestling with a tight deadline, when I received an email from one of my editors. A reader had just written in challenging the accuracy of a description I had given in a recent story. Could I look into it, my editor asked? I began scouring my research and realized to my chagrin that the reader was right: I had slipped up. The following day I sat down and wrote a correction, which ran in the next issue of the magazine.
Even the most careful writers get caught out committing an error from time to time. Editors seldom rank these blunders near the cardinal sins of plagiarism or fictionalization, but frequent errors or a cavalier attitude towards accuracy can quickly erode the credibility of a writer and the reputation of a magazine. To guard against this, large publications often hire fact-checkers to root out mistakes before articles see the light of day.
Many science writers I know have a kind of love-hate relationship with fact-checkers. In principle, most appreciate that someone is looking after their backs, but they can’t help seeing the process itself as a little humiliating and painful, right up there with having a root canal or a colonoscopy. “I really hate it with all my heart and soul,” says veteran science writer Ann Finkbeiner. “It’s everything I left grade school to get away from.”
Many large-circulation magazines insist on fact-checking, however, writing it into their letters of assignment. National Geographic, for example, requires writers to provide a manuscript copy that includes “the annotated list of publications, addresses and phone numbers of people and institutions mentioned in the text and other sources of information,” and to submit all the source material they collected during the assignment. The magazine then assigns a fact-checker to go through the story with a fine-tooth comb, checking each fact against the backup material to ensure that the writer has gotten even tiny details right.
I’ve been through this kind of gruelling fact-checking many times, yet I still feel a little anxious every time a fact-checker calls. But I have learned over the years that a writer can keep a fact-checker’s queries to a minimum by making the best and most detailed annotated copy possible. Read more »