The Importance of Fact-Checking and Why It’s Ever Harder to Get It Done Well

There’s little fact-checking in digital journalism—if it’s wrong we’ll fix it later. Here’s an piece by Emma Copley Eisenberg that focuses on books. It’s headlined “Fact-checking Is the Core of Nonfiction Writing. Why Do So Many Publishers Refuse to Do It?”:

When I set out to write my first book, I wanted to write a book that examined the very nature of facts and how we turn them into stories. To do this, I knew, I would have to get every fact that was verifiable correct. The more you want to ask the big, shifty questions, the more your foundation must be rock solid.

My book, The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia, concerns the deaths of two people who have many living family members, the incarceration of a living man, and a protracted emotional and social trauma of enormous meaning to a great many real and living people in a region with enormous (rightful) distrust of media and journalists. I’d done my best to get the facts correct as I wrote, but I had thousands of pages of archival documents, photos, trial transcripts, and newspaper clippings, as well as hours of interviews. The text had been through too many revisions, both large and sentence-level, for me to count. In quiet moments, I felt the anxiety of getting something wrong grip my stomach. I could hurt someone, open myself up to lawsuits, or just make a reader lose confidence in everything I had to say. Getting my book fact checked was not optional.

Fact checking is a comprehensive process in which, according to the definitive book on the subject, a trained checker does the following: “Read for accuracy”; “Research the facts”; “Assess sources: people, newspapers and magazines, books, the Internet, etc”; “Check quotations”; and “Look out for and avoid plagiarism.” Though I had worked as a fact checker in two small newsrooms, did I trust myself to do the exhaustive and detailed work of checking my own nonfiction book? I did not.

From reading up on the subject and talking to friends who had published books of nonfiction, I knew that I would be responsible for hiring and paying a freelance fact checker myself. This is the norm, not the exception; in almost all book contracts, it is the writer’s legal responsibility, not the publisher’s, to deliver a factually accurate text.

As a result, most nonfiction books are not fact checked; if they are, it is at the author’s expense. Publishers have said for years that it would be cost-prohibitive for them to provide fact checking for every nonfiction book; they tend to speak publicly about a book’s facts only if a book includes errors that lead to a public scandal and threaten their bottom line. Recent controversies over books containing factual errors by Jill Abramson, Naomi Wolf, and, further back, James Frey, come to mind.

Editors who acquire nonfiction books and work closely with authors subscribe to ideas of factual accuracy, but are usually not trained journalists, meaning that they might be unfamiliar with the fundamentals of reporting and fact checking (there are some exceptions to this norm, including recently named publisher of Simon & Schuster and former New York Times writer Dana Canedy). Despite the common sense idea that books are the longer and more permanent version of magazine articles, there is an informal division of church and state between the worlds of book publishing and magazine journalism. The latter is subjected to rigorous fact checking, while the former is not.

There are some reasons for this, including that authors of books are more typically considered experts on their material, while a journalist writing a single article on a topic may not be held to that same standard. Further, magazines typically own the copyright to all pieces they publish, while a book’s copyright remains with the author. All of this contributes to the sense that the magazine is responsible for the accuracy of the words published in their pages, while for a book, it’s the author.

A spokesperson for Hachette Book Group, one of the “Big Five” publishing houses and the publisher of my book, shared this statement with me: “We do have procedures in place to ensure that certain nonfiction books and some fiction books are vetted for libel and other legal issues. Relevant facts may be reviewed during the vetting process as necessary.” But ultimately, the spokesperson emphasized, “The responsibility for the accuracy of the text does rest on the author; we do rely on their expertise or research for accuracy.”. . .

Yet readers and some editors often mistakenly believe that the fact checking of nonfiction books happens somewhere in the typical copyediting process, and in the case of more news-heavy or potentially controversial books, the legal process. But this is not so. These processes may catch contradictions of date and season, name misspellings, or, depending on the copyeditor, glaring errors in research, but they are fundamentally designed to make sure that the book is readable and won’t open the publisher up to lawsuits—not to ensure rigorous accuracy. . . .

Four authors I spoke to had, like me, hired a freelance fact checker to check their books either in whole or in part. Three of them found their own fact checkers, agreed on a rate, and paid their checkers directly without any assistance from their publisher. These fact checkers charged a fee ranging between $27-$45 an hour, or a flat rate of $2,000 to $10,000 depending on the book’s length, the checker’s experience, and the density of the reporting. $8,000-10,000 seems to be the going rate for a thorough and complete check by a checker who has previously checked a book published by a Big Five publishing house; this rate goes down to $3,000-5,000 for a younger checker working more collaboratively with the author. . . .

Meanwhile, the stakes of not fact checking books only continue to get higher, as it’s become easier and easier to destroy a book’s credibility with a few clicks.


Speak Your Mind