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Fact or friction: the problem with factchecking in the book world

16 May 2018

From The Guardian:

Recent weeks have seen a flurry of conversation about factchecking in the publishing industry. Two high-profile authors have had their work’s accuracy questioned by their sources, leading to something of a reckoning in the book world. Many people are asking how these inaccuracies could have happened, but those familiar with the publishing process say they aren’t surprised.

Last month, Sally Kohn’s book The Opposite of Hate debuted to much media attention and celebrity endorsement. However, shortly after the book dropped, Call Your Girlfriend podcast co-host Aminatou Sow headed to Twitter to dispute a quote that had been attributed to her in the book and said that Kohn, a political pundit who appears on CNN, “admitted … that she did not go back to factcheck sources in her book”. In response, Kohn released a statement that said, in part: “I … regret that I did not double-check before using Aminatou’s quote and attributing it to her.”

Just two weeks later, Amy Chozick released her book Chasing Hillary. Chozick was the New York Times reporter assigned to cover Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2016. Clinton’s daughter Chelsea tweeted at Chozick about what she said were factual inaccuracies in the book, and noted that no one ever contacted her to verify them. The facts Chelsea disputes are about receiving a keratin hair treatment and popping champagne on election night. For her part, Chozick says she hired a factchecker and referred to her book’s author’s note, which reads: “This book is a work of nonfiction in that everything in it happened. But this is not a work of journalism, in that the recollections, conversations and characters are based on my own impressions and memories of covering Hillary Clinton and her family.” Chozick’s PR representative at HarperCollins did not return a request for comment.

These controversies have raised concerns about the accuracy and standards of published books. Similar concerns were circulated earlier this year when Michael Wolff released his book about Donald Trump’s White House, Fire and Fury. But what anyone who has never published a book might not realize is that the bar for factchecking books during the editing process is low, if it even exists at all. Not only that, it’s common for publishers to never have a conversation with authors about the issue of factchecking and to assume that getting it right is entirely on the author.

. . . .

“On a fundamental level, a publisher has to trust that authors will perform due diligence when it comes to verifying and sourcing facts, and that they will not knowingly misrepresent events or individuals in their work,” explains Hannah Wood, an editor who has worked in publishing industry since 2008. “This is the essence of the author warranties and indemnities section of a contract. Boilerplate language varies, but it generally affirms that the work is original, that it’s not libelous and that it’s accurate.”

Wood says that as the publishing industry stands now, constraints make it nearly impossible for publishers to be able to dedicate the kind of time and financial resources that would be required for a full factcheck on every book they publish. So while publishing houses provide copy-editing, proofreading and legal services who keep an eye out for issues of libel and intellectual property. Factchecking is usually outside the scope of what they can feasibly do.

“In the broad sense, factchecking is going back and checking on the sentence level for specific facts like stats and descriptions and that sort of thing,” says Brooke Borel, author of The Chicago Guide To Fact-Checking. “But also higher level, ‘Do all of these facts add up to something that’s true?’”

And while magazine journalism is usually thoroughly factchecked by a third party, “books are almost NEVER fact checked,” science writer and former factchecker Erin Biba said on Twitter (though she notes in a follow-up email that technically, her tweet itself hasn’t been factchecked). “Publishers don’t pay to factcheck books so writers have to pay out of their own pockets and that’s rarely possible. When I was a factchecker I rarely used a book as a source because they were often inaccurate and contained errors.”

. . . .

But with so many examples of high-profile books whose facts have been disputed in such a short period of time, it might be time for the book publishing industry to take a look at its standards and consider whether there might be a better way going forward.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

PG has a couple of immediate responses:

  1. He assumes all writing about contemporary US politics is fiction so he won’t be disappointed.
  2. These days, the traditional publishing industry has practices, but no standards.


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21 Comments to “Fact or friction: the problem with factchecking in the book world”

  1. I’m editing someone else, who has multi-sentence quotes from other authors, not all of whom I can lay my hands on.

    I also know my author has physical typing problems.

    This makes relying upon his accuracy a bit… problematic. I’m sure he’s trying to get it right, and he’s got the books, but down to details of punctuation, I have my doubts.

  2. And Google is not your friend because there’s so much made-up stuff floating around the intertubes …

    • I agree that there is a ton of misinformation on the web, but I still think Google is your friend, at least for fact-checking.

      As I learned fact-checking, you find three independent sources of the same information, look at the sources and determine whether or not they could be could be credible, are likely to be credible, have reason to distort, etc. If you still have doubts, repeat the process. Continue to repeat until you are certain the fact is question is reliable or not realiable. This is a laborious process, but fairly reliable.

      Google and the internet are a big help in tapping a wide range of sources. Fact-checking is a tremendous amount of work and requires experience and knowledge to do well. Sound fact checking is rare because it is hard, but it is still indispensable. I don’t fact check everything, but I try to on anything that is important and I am not rock solid on.

      The rule of three sources is crucial: you aren’t done after a single confirmation.

      • Trying different keywords might help weed out some of the false, but there’s still a risk that you’ll fall down the wrong rabbit hole. (And it’s only going to get worse with that ‘right to be forgotten’ and some people/groups trying to pretend WWII never happened.)

      • Felix J. Torres

        Three independent sources is very important.
        Often you can find dozens…all stemming from one injected story.

        • Often you can find dozens…all stemming from one injected story.

          That’s precisely what I encountered as a fact-checker, both when it was my title, and in my day-to-day life.

  3. What kind of person hired CBS anchor man Otis Livingston to work on the national television if he hates important people NBC Stephen B. Burke calling him white garbage,looser in business,crazy and even homo. Otis Livingston is dangerous for people!

  4. A statement that facts included are from sources deemed/assumed/believed accurate at the time of publishing should cover the bases. (You might even get away with saying “verified” sources because what does that mean?),

  5. Terrence OBrien

    it might be time for the book publishing industry to take a look at its standards and consider whether there might be a better way going forward.

    There is nothing new here.

  6. He assumes all writing about contemporary US politics is fiction so he won’t be disappointed.

    Best laugh in a long time. Thanks, PG!

  7. Wondering if this holds true for textbooks. Are they fact checked? Shudders at the thought of what kids are being taught in school, today and in the past.

    • *raises hand* Not always. I use one that is OK until you get to the 1920s, and then it has some serious problems, especially with Latin America and Africa. For example, apartheid ended peacefully after everyone just decided they were tired of it. I’m not a specialist in African history, and I knew that was wrong the first time I read it. The book is the 2010 edition.

      • So…what happpens now? Does the school get to ask for its money back when it returns the books? Will the purchaser(s) get fired for failing to vet the book?

        The textbook could be a teachable moment, though, in that a teacher could use it as evidence that the kids shouldn’t believe everything they read. Or even believe everything they learn in school…

        • I use it as a teachable moment. The book was in use before I started teaching the class, and it will be at least five years, possibly longer, before we can afford to replace them. I provide documentation for the correct info, in case anyone really wants to look it up for themselves.

  8. One persons facts are another person’s alternative facts. Once you get away from certain undeniable physical phenomena, ‘fact’ is just a label people stick on what they want other people to believe.

  9. So, let’s say you have a true story to tell about the new president of the United States. Sometimes it’s better to write it as fiction, as was done with PRIMARY COLORS. Everyone who read it knew pretty much: A/ what had happened; and B/ what else was going to happen.

  10. Journalist don’t fact check either. Much easier to print an eye-catching falsehood and then print a retraction no one reads. I think it is funny they try to play both sides. The book on Trump was blatantly wrong and misleading. The book on Clinton? Not so much. Did Chelse use karatin in her hair? Really? That compares to what they claim the President has done using zero fact or evidence? No bias here.

    • I completely agree and that’s why, while I don’t condone the behaviour, I can understand why the Chinese government often attempt to lock up booksellers.
      The fact is, that the media all over the world has and inordinate amount of power to determine what people will read and see, and some books are designed to ferment distrust among the population of a country using rumour and slander.

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