Then when the interview is done, you put your notebook in your pocket, you put your pen away, you walk out to your car, you do whatever you do, and then the person stops you and says the most important thing of all. And you realize that their saying that at that moment has something to do with the fact that your pen is not in your hand and your notebook is put away, and you realize that if you pull out your notebook and pull out the pen it’s going to break the spell and you will wreck this moment of revelation.

So what do you do? You spin the conversation as long as you can get. You get as much as information as you can get, and you go back into your car or hotel room or your coffee shop and you write it down after the fact. And again, that’s not exactly what the person said to you, but it’s legitimate. This is the way reporting happens.

All of this means that working with someone’s notes is not a science. It requires judgment and discretion and a strong sense, which comes only with practice, of what is acceptable and what is not.

Ultimately we make mistakes. I wish we didn’t, but they are inevitable and constant. It does seem to be something of a national sport to write letters to The New Yorker and point out these mistakes. And often the mistake letters we receive explain that the letter’s writer has been reading The New Yorker for years and he’s never seen anything like this, that Shawn and Harold Ross must be turning in their graves, that the writer didn’t realize that as a cost-cutting measure The New Yorker had eliminated its fact-checking department, and did we know that there used to be fact-checkers in the old days?

These letters aren’t a great deal of fun for us, but we take some consolation in the idea that the indignation is perhaps a reflection of their high expectations and the degree to which we are generally successful in getting the magazine out there in a fairly sharp and timely fashion.

And the only reason that The New Yorker system works, however well it does, is because we’ve always had very good institutional support. All the editors have been big supporters of the checking process.

And with the help of all these people, fact-checking has become a big part of The New Yorker’s editing process, and our end of the bargain is to try to be intelligent and diplomatic. To try to make things work out. To try to not obstruct publication, but to get things as right as they can be, and as right as we can. This doesn’t always make us popular inside the magazine, but it seems to work.

Correction: Due to a transcription error, the word “world” was substituted for “war” in the eighth paragraph above. We regret the error and it has been fixed.

 

Peter Canby is a senior editor and the head of the fact-checking department at The New Yorker. He wrote The Heart of the Sky: Travels Among the Maya (1992) and numerous magazine stories.