In praise of the fact-checkers

A fact-checker at The New Yorker wanted to know how journalist John McPhee was so certain that a river he’d been floating down was the exact temperature he reported.

Why, he’d simply hung a thermometer off the bow of his canoe and looked at the results.

I used to tell that story to my journalism students as an example of fact-checking at its finest. I also used to spout legendary crime reporter Edna Buchanan’s three rules for reporting:

Never trust an editor.

Never trust an editor.

Never trust an editor.

In other words, don’t count on someone else to catch your mistakes.

I’ve changed my tune on that one lately, having just survived a rigorous, occasionally sweat-inducing fact-checking experience. For the March issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, I wrote an essay about a crusty newspaper copy editor I used to work with named Lynn Forbish. As her mind slipped into dementia in 2006, she asked me to tell her story — before she forgot it.

A stickler for details, Lynn was the kind of copy editor who had no problem getting a reporter out of bed at midnight to check a fact. So it was fitting when an O fact-checker tracked me down on vacation recently to double- and triple-check several details in the story, which had already been through four editors at least.

Lynn’s relatives recalled some details differently than I had, including when exactly Lynn’s mind began to falter. Before her 61st birthday? After her 62nd? (It was sometime between the two.)

Which paper was it that she’d worked for in St. Pete – the Times or the Evening Independent? (Both.)

Another editor wanted to me to verify the anecdote about Lynn fighting a bull in Spain. Can a tourist really do that? Step into a ring with an angry bull?

I had relied on a family member’s recollection for that detail. But it was one of those stories that had been told and retold so many times that it turned out no one really knew if or how Lynn fought the bull.

She had, albeit a small one — only it wasn’t in Spain, it was Mexico, according to the newspaper article we finally tracked down, written by Lynn herself. As a wonderful byproduct, that fact-finding mission produced a keeper of a photo of Lynn brandishing a red cape — resolute, brave and absolutely beaming. (I considered it bonus proof that the old gal really had faced down a bull.)

A reporter now for 25 years, I’m sorry to say that most newspapers simply don’t have time to fact-check with the rigor of a monthly magazine — although a certain British copy editor named Suzanne likes very much to keep me on my toes.

I like to think the magazine pieces I’ve written in recent years have had a positive spillover into my daily work. Surviving the fact-checkers has made me try harder to prevent those humbling, late-night “How do we know this for a fact?” calls from Suzanne.

After my November nail-biter of a trip to Haiti, I had to describe what it was like to navigate through angry protests and roadblocks as the medical team I covered fled cholera-decimated Limbe. But were there six roadblocks or seven? And at what point did we arrive at the scariest stop, the one with the blocked-off bridge and the man who clutched both a machete and a stick as he ran straight for us?

In the front seat of our truck, I was so scared I only took notes between roadblocks, after the danger was passed. And you try making sense of notes written while riding on dirt roads with mattress-sized potholes at the same time you’re thinking, man, I really wish they had guns instead of machetes.

At least with guns, death might be mercifully quick.

It took several follow-up interviews with team members before I felt comfortable describing the escape in detail. The bridge roadblock was the fourth, we all agreed. There were six roadblocks in all.

Part of the medical team, in all its post-rescue glory.

The whole ordeal lasted how long? Not one of us had a clue, a detail that spoke volumes about how the brain processes trauma. Could have been 20 minutes, could have been 90.

When is a fact really a certifiable fact? What do you do when people remember things differently, as they ultimately will?

When you’ve been reporting for as long as I have and in basically the same community, it can be tempting to not make that extra phone call, not challenge that source you’ve been calling on for years, not give that piece you could’ve just written in your sleep a 16th or 17th going-over before you turn it in.

For my recent series on the politically contentious issue of Lyme disease, I knew I couldn’t rely on old habits when I interviewed a doctor who greeted me with, “I’ve been looking forward to this as much as a root canal,” then proceeded to pick apart my every question. (When I casually asked what tick-precautions I should take when I hike up Mill Mountain, he shot back: “Well, are you in shape?”)

Which is why I decided to record every interview for the series — something I rarely do — even though the transcription time doubled my work.

Should anyone question the validity of my quotes, I wanted my own thermometer in the water, my McPhee-level proof. (See a fabulous interview with the literary journalism master in this Paris Review.)

McPhee has written that the worst checking error is calling people dead who are not dead. I’m happy to say I’ve never committed that sin, though I once used the wrong pronoun on a second-reference to a person, giving him — or her; I forget which — a print sex change. Once when was I was very young and rushed I made reference in a profile — of an English professor, no less! — to the writer William Thoreau. Ugh.

It’s the things you think you know that get you into trouble every time.

Long live the fact-checkers.

Leave a comment

16 Comments

  1. Lana Whited

     /  January 14, 2011

    Love that Edna Buchanan. Love you, too (even if you did call me an unprintable name yesterday). If your mother says she loves you . . . .

    Reply
  2. bethmacy

     /  January 14, 2011

    Good thing FB messages don’t follow the same decency standards as old-fashioned newspapers. Love you too, honey!

    Reply
  3. Great entry!! And yay for Oprah — am so glad that piece got accepted! Love the pic with the cape.

    Reply
  4. bethmacy

     /  January 14, 2011

    Mad, you were one of the best editors I ever had, and don’t forget it, Missy!
    (And remember the story about the Correction you had to make on the Correction, due to the overzealous spell-checking machine????)

    Reply
  5. Aw, shucks.

    Will never forget that story — one of my very favorites. May have to dig up that correction again (am pretty sure Ralph has it handy since it was HIS story) as I am now teaching fourth graders about newspapers.

    Reply
  6. John McPhee is probably my favorite writer of all time, and perhaps the biggest influence in my adult life on my vocabulary. Thanks for steering me to the wonderful interview!

    This was a great post, typical Beth brilliance … and I’m so thrilled for you – O Magazine! You so fly, girl 🙂

    Reply
  7. Beth, Just read your fabulous piece in O. Loved it so much that I had to track down your blog just to say: Wow! What a touching, wonderful piece. Bravo!

    Reply
  8. I loved this post, and I really enjoyed your story in O (which is how I found your blog). As someone facing the sadness of a fiesty loved one battling dementia-related memory loss, it was a poignant read.

    Thank you!!

    Reply
    • bethmacy

       /  February 19, 2011

      Thanks so much, Heather, and for subscribing too. Really appreciate it, Beth

      Reply
  9. Hi Beth,
    Just stumbled on this terrific item of yours while searching for links to add to the schedule for RU Communication Week. Looking forward to meeting you.

    Bob
    JHeroes.com

    Reply
    • bethmacy

       /  February 26, 2011

      Thanks for the kind note, Bob. Look forward to meeting you too! Best,

      Reply
  10. Katie Forbish

     /  March 31, 2011

    Sorry that we were not the best relayers of dates–it was an exceptionally painful journey. I am glad the photo emerged from the depths of my basement. Your article, as we have said before, was beautifully written. Congrats on cnn.com.

    Reply
    • bethmacy

       /  April 1, 2011

      You’re the best, Katie. None of it could have been done without you and Larry and all your trust. Thanks again for all!
      (Don’t know what you mean about cnn.com.)
      Hope you’re well, and talk soon. xoxo Beth

      Reply
  11. katie forbish

     /  April 2, 2011

    oprah magazine contacted us for photo permission as the article will be put on cnn.com i’ll forward you the email.

    Reply

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