Most people don’t realize that while magazine articles are carefully combed over, fact-checking for books is up to the author and often not routinely done. I first met fact-checking genius Melissa Chianta when she was the managing editor of Mothering magazine. I wrote several long articles for Mothering and was impressed (if a little daunted) by Melissa’s work. She fact-checked every assertion, went back to the original scientific articles and re-read them to make sure they had been fairly quoted, and she contacted sources to verify they had said what her writers quoted them saying. So when I needed the best fact-checking for my book, which comes out in exactly three weeks from today (who’s counting?), I knew which fact-checker to hire. Melissa graciously agreed to guest blog here about fact-checking and why every nonfiction writer needs a fact-checker.
Just the Facts, Ma’am
by Melissa Chianta
Have you ever written down or typed a phone number or address only to try to use it later and find out you got it wrong? We all make mistakes, even when we are quite sure we haven’t. And for an investigative journalist, those errors can be the difference between a sterling reputation and a lawsuit.
That’s where my work as a fact-checker comes in.
I shine a penetrating light into the nooks and crannies of manuscripts and articles, searching for any conceivable problem. Are an author’s arguments solid, or do they appear more like a block of Swiss cheese? Is it really true that Hong Kong has a lower infant mortality rate than the United States, and that the last name of the CEO of Nestlé is spelled Bulcke?
For every author who goes through the painstaking and potentially ego-bruising process of fact-checking, there are 10 who do not.
Take it from me: Don’t believe everything in print.
Many book publishers don’t hire fact-checkers to look at manuscripts. And authors find themselves without the money or the guts to hire someone to fact-check for them. A writer could claim another person’s research for her own and the publisher would be none the wiser. (Yes this actually happens!)
With Google at my side, I taught myself how to be a good sleuth while working as the managing editor at a national magazine that didn’t have much of a fact-checking protocol before I instituted one.
Poking and prodding at hundreds of thousands of pages over the years has taught me a thing or two about whom to believe—and how to sniff out a rat.
Here are some of my favorite tips:
1. Watch out for fame. Sometimes the wider someone’s exceptional reputation, the greater likelihood that you’ll find errors in their work. People who have established careers may rely on their notoriety, rather than on the straight facts, to keep their book sales high. A famous person may have others write for them, or quote old statistics that served them well when they first made it big, so why not now? Or they get too busy with their speaking schedules to look up data, and so rely on second-hand information.
2. Trust the little people. Turn an ear toward the person in the basement cubicle before you listen to those sitting in offices with spectacular views. Many assume that talking to the top execs is where you’ll find the big scoop. But the CEOS are more likely to spew the same stats they’ve been using for three years (see #1), whereas the person who stayed up ‘til midnight to put the report on the boss’s desk (where it will remain unread) is the one with the right numbers.
3. You can’t beat an original. If a study or person quotes data from another study, it’s important to look at the original piece of research. I have caught more than one reputable author misquoting data from a study—sometimes even from his own research!
4. Watch out for the PR machine. Copy that rolls out of public relations offices is not written by scientists, but marketers paid to promote a researcher’s or company’s work. When at all possible, I read the study itself, rather than the press release about the study. Or if the release isn’t about research, but something such as a company’s new acquisition, then I look for a newspaper story to corroborate what the release says.
5. Fast facts aren’t always right. The highly caffeinated folks who write for dailies are often too slammed on tight deadlines to be accurate all of the time. Sigh. There’s not a lot to be done about this. Sometimes newspaper articles chronicle events in a way that can’t be found elsewhere, so they have to serve as primary sources. But whenever possible, I always suggest going to the original person or piece of research quoted.
Being a fact-checker is often a bottom-rung position at magazines and other publishing outfits.
But ask my clients: There is nothing lowly whatsoever about what I do.
I give them confidence in their work, and that is worth its weight in gold.
In other news:
I’ve started a Facebook parenting community to make pregnancy, birth, and parenting safer and more enjoyable. We want to hear from you. Join us.
Cornell Alumni Magazine published a short review of The Business of Baby:
The Business of Baby by Jennifer Margulis ’90 (Scribner). Drawing upon interviews with mothers, doctors, and nurses who are concerned about the failings in America’s health-care system, a Schuster Institute fellow at Brandeis University guides parents through the baffling business of pregnancy, childbirth, and the first year of a baby’s life. “Though our tendency is to defer to the doctors and others in the medical establishment,” she writes, “it is we parents, and our babies, who actually know best.” She shows how to educate yourself, stand up to the system, and voice your concerns for the well-being of your baby.
Publishers Weekly has also reviewed the book. I’ve decided to marry the reviewer:
Award-winning investigative journalist/mother of four Margulis comes to some startling conclusions in this comprehensively researched examination of the business of giving birth in America. Beginning with pregnancy and ending at baby’s first birthday, the text follows in rough chronological order the issues that parents face, from prenatal care, labor and delivery, to potty training and well-baby pediatrician visits. Margulis raises the question of why the United States has the highest maternal mortality rate of any industrialized country. She interviews doctors, midwives, parents, scientists and others, hunting down the corporate profits and private interests that “trump mom and baby,” relentlessly searching for evidence of why unnecessary and sometimes harmful medical interventions are practiced in American hospitals. In her search for answers, Margulis comes to some stunning realizations about practices that most parents believe to be safe, ranging from ultrasounds and C-sections to the baby’s first—possibly “toxic”—bath in the hospital nursery (researchers, for instance, are studying a link between ultrasounds and autism; C-sections have become a dangerous “trend”). Many decisions, the author concludes, are not based upon “best evidence or best practices,” but rather on medical industry profits and fear of litigation. Inspiring readers to follow her lead by trusting their instincts and questioning the status quo, Margulis delivers a compelling and thought-provoking work for every parent and parent-to-be. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 03/04/2013
I’m also setting up some cyber and real-world travel. Let me know if your organization wants me to come speak! I’ll be posting details soon.