Journalists remember their first fact-checking jobs

Richard Eisenberg (Submitted photo)

In his first job in journalism, Richard Eisenberg was a fact-checker at Money Magazine. Back then, the chief of reporters scared the hell out of him as she walked down the hall.

Eisenberg can still remember her saying, “We do not tolerate E-GREEEEEEE-GIOUS errors.”

I remember my silent glee uncovering one writer’s error, before her story appeared, about the candy and drinks she said were served on an upscale train vacation, only to learn from said writer that she had made them up and assumed I would get the right information during my fact-checking.

And it was fun to tell my friends that I was a “Researcher” — as though I worked in Fermilab.

Eisenberg is now the assistant managing editor and senior Web editor at Next Avenue, and after that fact-checker job he eventually went on to work as Money’s executive editor. When we asked for stories from people who started their careers as fact-checkers, Eisenberg e-mailed with his story, and we heard many more on Twitter and Facebook. Here are a few we’ve collected.

Julia Dahl, author, reporter, CBSNews.com

I started at EW as an intern in the summer of 1999 and in August they hired me as a freelance fact-checker. At the time (this may still be true) the magazine had a giant library with multiple librarians and researcher/reporters. We fact-checked everything, and we had to have at least two sources for every fact. And by fact, I mean things as seemingly obvious as the spelling of Tom Cruise’s name. Two sources. And we were not allowed, at the time, to use only online sources. We had to use primary sources, like newspapers and books kept in the library. Or, I’d have to call Tom Cruise’s publicist’s office and have them spell his name for me. The woman who ran the department was named Annabel Bentley and she was amazing. She sat with me and showed me how each story should be fact-checked; I needed to strike-thru every letter of every proper name, and then write where I had found the proof it was correct above. Same thing with every factual assertion (like: “Julia Roberts won and Oscar for “Erin Brockovich”) I wanted to write, so I left the job as soon as I got a gig on the editorial side, but I also knew that, at some point, something was going to slip by me; I may be a Virgo, but no one has ever accused me of being overly fastidious. Still, I learned how important it is to check your assumptions. At a later job, I accidentally referred to Sen. Harry Reid as the senator from Utah – a BIG mistake in political reporting. Had I used Annabel’s strike-thru method, I would never have made such an error.

Benae Mosby, communications manager, WAMU 88.5 American University Radio

Benae Mosby (Jeff Watts/American University)

 

Fact-checking as an intern at Philadelphia Weekly really drove home for me that readers expect accuracy, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s the spelling of a band’s name or a description of a neurological disorder — you’d better have it right. Good journalists don’t want to have to issue corrections, so this process of turning over every detail of a story to verify it taught me to question myself as a student reporter. If I put a detail in a piece, I needed to know for myself that it was true, either because I experienced it or the information came from a trustworthy source. When I do final edits of copy for anything I’m working on, I still underline and highlight facts and ask myself and others: how do we know this? I also had to make a lot of phone calls and got to talk to a broad range of people. It was fun, but also incredibly useful preparation for working in PR inside a media organization. I felt a real sense of purpose going over those stories. I also thought it was a treat to read such great reporting before it was published.

 

 

 

Drew Grossman, writer and researcher, Creditunions.com

Drew Grossman (submitted photo)

Grossman got his start as a fact-checker at National Geographic Traveler. At first, though, it wasn’t a job he applied for. “To be honest, I didn’t know what a fact-checker did,” he told Poynter in a phone interview. But he learned. Via e-mail, Grossman shared this:

My first experience in a magazine newsroom was at Traveler, where as a research intern it was my responsibility to confirm the accuracy of all assertions of fact in an assigned story. My greatest challenge was fact-checking “Japan’s Past Perfect” by Don George for the January/February 2012 issue. The story detailed the writer’s trip through Japan’s sparsely populated Iya Valley. Research for the piece involved studying maps of the area and corresponding with Japanese tourism organizations and travelers familiar with that region of Japan. I also emailed with George throughout the research of his piece to discuss changes and clarifications. This honed a sharp attention to detail and an understanding of the subtle power of word choice.

 

 

Brooke Borel, contributing editor, Popular Science

Brooke Borel (submitted photo)

My first job as a fact-checker was odd. My colleagues and I were fact-checking a science magazine that was originally written and published in Danish and then translated into English for republication (the US version folded last year). The Danish side did not require a fact check, but the American side did. We had no contact with the original authors for any of the articles we had to check. Sometimes we got source lists, but they usually included a lot of Wikipedia links. The job involved more original reporting than a typical fact-check job and was bizarre at times, but I learned a lot about reporting and putting together a story from the experience. It also made me really, really appreciate the fact-checkers on my own stories– I annotate the hell out of my copy to save them time.

Since then, I fact-checked for Quanta for a year and also fact-checked my own book (working title “Suck: The Tale of the Bed Bug,” University of Chicago Press 2015). I also started teaching a fact-checking class at the Brooklyn Brainery because I realized it wasn’t a skill that a lot of my journalist and writer friends were learning at work. We’ve only run the class twice, but it sold out both times. I plan to continue it indefinitely.

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.

  • Rich Kane

    I can’t be the only one noticing the spelling errors in some of these stories …