Getting it right: Why fact checking is more important now than ever

As part of ASBPE’s July 24 National Conference in New York, Roy Harris, Howard Rauch and I led a town hall session on fact checking. Our introductory remarks attacked the topic from different angles, but with a single focus: the challenge to accuracy in B2B publishing never has been greater.

After Howard did his best to document recent slippage in editorial quality — based in part on surveys conducted by his company, Editorial Solutions Inc. — Roy offered some tips from his 13 years at CFO Magazine. Those tips came from its founding editor, Julia Homer, and included setting the right tone by insisting that reporters get details right the first time, providing training to help staff identify reliable online sources, requiring source lists from reporters, and developing universal standards for all your brand’s content.

I don’t claim to have the vast knowledge or experience that my co-presenters have, but what I brought to the table was an example of what we at POWER magazine do to manage the constant challenge of getting the facts correct.

It’s everyone’s job

I am part of a relatively small editorial team. Editor Gail Reitenbach leads the group, while Sonal Patel, Tom Overton, and I work as associate editors. We don’t have a dedicated fact-checker, and I suspect that most small- and mid-sized publications are in the same boat. What we do have is a dedicated team of professionals, each with different strengths (and weaknesses).

The expectation within our group is that the author of any article will confirm and present the facts as they relate to any story being written. That means verifying sources and confirming that details are accurate. However, the person editing a story also has a responsibility to check the facts.

For web-based stories, we require that all content gets reviewed and checked by another member of the staff before posting. (There are exceptions, such as when no other staff member is available due to vacation and/or traveling obligations, but they are very rare and extra care is taken by the author to ensure accuracy in those situations.) Our policy for articles published in the magazine is that nothing goes in without being reviewed and fact-checked appropriately. No fewer than three sets of staff eyes review every story, and in some cases all four of us will be involved either through writing, editing, reviewing, proofreading, and/or fact checking a piece. Surprisingly, we still miss things, but it is not due to a lack of effort.

Here are three examples to consider.

1. Flattering? Not really. (Or, Google is your friend, but…)

I use Google regularly, and in my opinion anyone who doesn’t use his or her favorite search engine to do at least some fact checking is overlooking a great resource. There are obviously limitations. Most blogs are not reliable resources for fact checking, but many academic, government, or news agency websites are reputable and can be useful.
Google results can occasionally confirm inaccurate information, though, so you have to be careful. For example, I was proofreading a story recently about a bladeless wind turbine, which mentioned that a bridge collapse had been influenced by “flattering” effects. I had never heard the term flattering used in that context, so I did a quick search.
Several of the results seemed to confirm the use of the term (Figure 1). One of the results noted that “Harvard” supported the new wind-energy innovation being written about. Although it wasn’t on a Harvard website, it did seem to lend some authority to the use of the word.

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Figure 1

However, I still wasn’t convinced, so I dug a little deeper and searched some other terms and sources. In the end, my digging uncovered the fact that “fluttering” effects were the cause not “flattering” effects.

2. Don’t forget your calculator. (Or, Numbers and editors do mix.)

Numbers present frequent problems in stories. My colleague Tom Overton was working on a POWER news story recently about PacifiCorp’s plan to reduce its reliance on coal-fired generation and increase its energy-efficiency programs. In Tom’s effort to get the facts straight, he did a little math on some of the plants that were mentioned in the press release.

What he found was that the numbers didn’t add up (Figure 2). He determined that the facilities in question only totaled 1,700 MW rather than the 2,800 MW noted in the press release. He called the company to ask about the discrepancy and found out that he was correct. They had made an error in the announcement.

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Figure 2

Erin L. Boyle, editor of a medical association news service, presented an ASBPE webinar titled “10 tips for better proofreading and copy editing” on May 5. She also suggested that editors should “Add up the numbers;” it was tip number five in her presentation.

3. Don’t take graphics for granted. (Or, Charts are tricky to fact-check.)

The fact checking of graphics is too often overlooked. Many times, particularly if a graphic is not created in-house, editors may assume the chart, graph, or table has already been sufficiently vetted, but sometimes that is not the case.
For example, graphics frequently include numbers. As stated in the last section, numbers need to be checked. By their nature, graphics provide a visual representation of the data being presented. As such, it is important that the proportions match the data.

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Figure 3

In Figure 3, not only don’t the numbers add up ($27.4B + $18.7B = $46.1B, not $45.7B), but the sizes of the coins aren’t proportional to the data either. Many more than 10 of the smallest coin (hardly visible) would fit inside the medium-sized coin, and well over three of the medium-sized coin would fit into the large coin. Readers could easily have been misled by this graphic if not corrected.

Are we striving for perfection?

I have to admit that I am a perfectionist. Being a perfectionist doesn’t mean a person is perfect. I make more than my fair share of mistakes, but my goal is always to produce the very best content for readers. I’ve got to believe that is every editor’s mission.

With that in mind, I check little things that some might call spelling errors or typos. But to me they are just as important as any other fact in a story. Things like units can be wrong, such as 2 MW when 2 GW is correct. Some words are not always familiar to writers either, such as pitot tube, which can lead to incorrect changes. (It’s defined as an open-ended right-angled tube pointing into the flow of a fluid, and used to measure pressure.)

Foreign words can be easily misspelled. You don’t want to mix up a letter, or leave one out, for example, in Fangjiashan. (That’s a nuclear power plant in China’s Zhejiang province.)  And names often get mixed up too, such as Larson rather than Larsen, Tampa Times rather than Tampa Bay Times, and Petro Nova rather than Petra Nova.

Will any of these errors result in the end of civilization? No, but I believe readers do notice when little things are wrong and lose just a bit of faith in the quality of the product. Therefore, my last request for each of you is: Keep doing your best to get it right.

Aaron Larson is an associate editor for POWER magazine.

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