The perils of publishing without a fact-checking net

January 25, 2019

How reporters do their jobs–including how and whether their work is fact checked–has repeatedly made appearances in our hectic news cycle. We’ve seen commentary and criticism of it from politicians like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who on January 7 raised questions about how the fact-checking process works, and from the subjects of stories that contain errors, such as journalist and activist Noor Tagouri, who was misidentified in a photo caption in the February issue of Vogue.

That conversation continued last week, ahead of the release of former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson’s new book, titled Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and The Fight for Facts. On Twitter, Arielle Duhaime-Ross, a science and environmental reporter at Vice, detailed what she called “six errors and false implications” about her from a galley version of Abramson’s book. Another Vice employee says a section of the book falsely described him as not wearing protective gear at an Ebola clinic. (Abramson addressed the fact-checking issue in an interview with CJR and said that while she regretted the errors, “In a 500-page book I fear it’s inevitable that there are going to be some.”)

While many legacy magazines have robust fact-checking departments to guard against errors, they are essentially nonexistent at newspapers and digital outlets. The rules of reporting, of course, come with a number of safeguards that journalists—who by and large conduct their work in pursuit of accuracy to the best of their abilities—follow carefully. One of the primary reasons for this is a lack of time; it is virtually impossible to rigorously report the day’s news, edit a story, and then hand it over to a fact checker to be verified in time to print a paper the next day—or an article the next hour. Knowing this, one might reasonably expect that books by journalists, which are not confined by such tight deadlines and are often touted as reliable sources of information, are fact checked. Except, that’s totally wrong.

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Fact-checking is not built into the editing process at publishing houses, and it never has been. Book agents point to practical concerns: publishing houses spend most of their money on advances paid directly to authors, and so can’t afford to hire fact-checking departments. And if fact-checking rests on the authors, publishing houses are protected, legally. When books are fact-checked, authors often pay for the service themselves. Costs can range from a few hundred dollars for minor work up to several thousand for more substantive checking.

Veteran education reporter Sarah Carr doesn’t recall whether fact-checking came up when she discussed her first book, Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children, with Bloomsbury. The book, which chronicles a 14-year old high school student, a charter school teacher fresh out of Harvard, and a veteran public school principal in post-Katrina New Orleans, was copyedited and indexed by Bloomsbury and cleared by lawyers, but Carr says she “always understood that I would be fact checking the book.”

Carr described the task as “overwhelming,” but it was one that eight years of experience at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and New Orleans’s The Times-Picayune prepared her for. “If you were lucky, an editor served as a second line of defense. So you learn to do your own fact checking quickly,” she says, noting that after long days spent with sources, she would type her notes and fill in details while they were fresh in her memory. “I tried to go over scenes with people involved to make sure their memory squared with my notes. I did as much due diligence as I could,” she says.

Carr estimates that she paid an assistant a few hundred dollars, out-of-pocket, for what she estimates was between five and ten hours worth of fact-checking work. “What I had her do was email people specific things I hadn’t been able to nail down and had her forward me email transcripts,” she says. But much of the work she did herself—often during the reporting process itself.

“Once the full manuscript was in place, I remember having a long list of things I needed to check on,” she says. “I remember long emails back and forth with subjects where I was paraphrasing [parts of the book] to make sure I had them right.”

New Yorker writer Evan Osnos’s book, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China, is a combination of new material and reporting that had previously appeared in the magazine and in the Chicago Tribune. Reporting that had previously run in The New Yorker had already been subject to the magazine’s famously rigorous fact-checking process.

But for the rest, “I wanted to do as much as I could to try to match that level of checking. I hired an independent fact checker to [verify] parts of the book that had not been checked previously for publication. I paid out of pocket,” Osnos says. He hired Amy Qin, a New York Times reporter who speaks Chinese, and handed over a footnoted manuscript, contact information for sources who appear in the book, and a number of subject area experts who were not named in the book but could review assertions about complicated things such as Chinese economic history.

“There is no institutional fact-checking, aside from a legal review to see if you’re slandering someone” in the book world, science journalist Charles C. Mann says. Mann, who has written a number of books, most recently a double biography of scientists Norman Borlaug and William Vogt, sent sections of the book to subject area experts for review.

“If you write for The Atlantic, it’s uncommon to send a manuscript out for review. In the world of nonfiction, it’s quite common. You give it to an expert or send chapters to someone. There are tools that are less available to you as a magazine writer, where they want to keep the entire thing in-house,” Mann says.

Mann sent a “hideously complicated” section on plant physiology to a plant biologist, for example, who caught a reference to a plant’s ovary—it’s called an ovule. He estimates that he sent sections of the book to some 25 experts.

Chris Parris-Lamb, a literary agent at The Gernet Company, encourages all his writers to invest in fact checking. But he acknowledges that many books that are published are never checked by anyone. He attributes this to the fact that publishing houses have fundamentally different relationships with authors than newspapers and magazines do. “No one subscribes to, at least not yet, Jane Mayer’s stories. They subscribe to The New Yorker. The New Yorker is the entity that people are placing their trust and faith in and therefore, it is in the publication’s interest to make sure that trust is not misplaced,” Parris-Lamb, who represents many journalists, says. Where sales of a magazine benefit its owners, “an author is paid for every sale of the book that happens,” Parris-Lamb adds. “Few readers can name who publishes their favorite writers. It’s the writer and the book that brings the reader in. In that way—I’m not going to say it’s appropriate—[but] it’s understandable that publishers see [fact checking] as something that falls onto the author.”

Parris-Lamb says it isn’t likely that publishing houses will begin offering the service to authors any time soon, even as journalism confronts a decline in public trust. But there is one thing he’d bet on.

“Right now, checking, when it does happen, there isn’t a hard and fast protocol for when it happens. It really happens at whatever stage the author is ready to do it,” he says. “I wonder if, even if authors are still responsible, if a publisher [will soon] say, ‘If you want to engage a fact checker, we need to build in time to do that before a manuscript goes into copy editing and before galleys are printed.’”

Despite the extra time and money it costs, journalists should feel obliged to have their books fact checked—whether that means hiring someone to do it, or doing it themselves. But even this kind of due diligence comes with limits. “What fact-checkers can’t do is save you from super calamitous errors in judgment, where every sentence is right but the whole thing is wrong,” Mann says. “Everyone can think of examples where the entire gist of an article is off even though every single fact is right. There’s a limited amount they can do to save you from yourself.”

Controversial stories like Jesse Singal’s cover story for The Atlantic, on how parents of transgender teens approach their desire to personally or medically transition, come to mind. The story was fact checked, but according to many readers, journalists, and activists in the trans community, was transphobic—and all wrong. The difference between fact and truth is yet another example of why newsrooms, and publishing houses, desperately need to invest in employing and representing diverse writers, editors, agents, and fact checkers alike.

“I hope that we can, as journalists, hold in our heads the difference between an isolated fact like the color of someone’s shoes and the whole thrust of the story which is. . . to communicate to average people what the heck is going on to the best of our ability. And it’s important to get the first thing right, but the second thing is even more important,” Mann says.

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Alexandria Neason was CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow. Recently, she became an editor and producer at WNYC’s Radiolab.