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Publishing’s Fact-Checking Problem

19 January 2019

From Vox:

Book publishing has a fact-checking problem, and that problem might have just caught up with former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson.

Abramson’s highly anticipated new book, Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts, is scheduled to publish at the beginning of February, but advance copies have begun to circulate through the media. And more than one of the people featured in the book have disputed the facts and truth of Abramson’s writing about facts and truth.

In a lengthy Twitter thread, journalist Arielle Duhaime-Ross cites a paragraph of Merchants of Truth pertaining to her work at Vice and says it contains six errors, including about her gender identity and her journalism background.

“I met Jill Abramson in June ’17 in the VICE office,” Duhaime-Ross wrote. “We chatted for less than 40 minutes. She took handwritten notes. I have not heard from her since, by which I mean she did not contact me for a fact-check.”

. . . .

Duhaime-Ross’s critique was echoed by many of her current and former colleagues at Vice, who focused on a portion of Abramson’s book that characterizes the site as a salacious and irresponsible news outlet more focused on curating a certain image than on reporting the truth.

Danny Gold, a video journalist who is now at PBS Newshour and who previously worked at Vice, writes that Abramson misrepresented his decision not to wear protective clothing while covering an Ebola clinic in Africa. Abramson portrays Gold’s decision as dangerously reckless — in contrast to safer decisions made by reporters for the New York Times while covering the same story, who she says wore protective clothing the whole time — but Gold says that’s inaccurate.

“Like every other reporter there, i was told by experts not to walk around with a PPE [personal protective equipment] unless you were in the ICU. I also worked alongside Times reporters, who a. Gave me that advice and b. Did the same,” he tweeted. Gold added that he explained as much both to Abramson and on camera, in the published version of the Vice documentary The Fight Against Ebola.

Also on Twitter, Jay Caspian Kang (formerly of Vice, now at the New York Times Magazine) noted that Abramson says Charlottesville is in North Carolina (it is in Virginia; North Carolina is the home of the city of Charlotte), and Vice’s Elle Reeve notes that a figure Abramson describes as a “southern white nationalist” is in fact from Long Island.

. . . .

The portions of Abramson’s finished book that have circulated online suggest that some but not all of the errors people identified in the galley have been corrected in the finished book. Either way, it is unusual for major factual errors to linger this far into the book production process, only to be corrected later. By the time galleys are released, it’s more typical for a publisher to be correcting proofreading errors on the level of spelling and grammar than is it to be correcting the facts. It’s certainly possible that Abramson did a good-faith fact check of her book very late into production, but that would be unusual.

Moreover, it’s worth noting that all the people disputing Abramson’s claims say they were never contacted by a fact-checker. So if the book was fact-checked, that process didn’t include a conversation with Abramson’s subjects.

. . . .

I wrote about book publishing’s fact-checking problem for Vox in 2018. As I wrote then:

In general, fact-checking is not a standard part of the workflow in book publishing, even in nonfiction book publishing. What usually happens is this: Authors submit their manuscripts, the manuscripts go to editors who help to refine them and shape them, and from there the book goes into production and copy editing.

The copy editor will look for grammatical errors, and sometimes the publisher’s lawyer will check the book to make sure there’s nothing libelous in there, but fact-checking is not part of the standard publisher’s process. […]

So how do publishers generally handle it if factual errors creep into a book? Basically, the same way they handle plagiarism: They make it the author’s problem.

One of the standard parts of any book contract is the warranty and indemnity clause. By signing on to that clause, an author is guaranteeing that their book is their own, original project, not plagiarism, that it doesn’t infringe on anyone else’s rights, and — if the book is nonfiction — that its facts are accurate. And if it turns out that any of these claims are untrue, the liability is all on the author. They’re the ones who pay up if someone decides to sue.

So the facts are all up to the author. And different authors handle that liability differently. Some might want to hire a freelance fact-checker, but that can get expensive: Vulture cites flat prices of between $5,000 and $25,000, and the Editorial Freelancers Association quotes a rate of about $30 to $40 per hour. The money for fact-checker fees would have to come from the author. And since most nonfiction book authors aren’t exactly rolling in spare cash, it’s a tempting corner to cut. Many authors decide to just fact-check themselves or to skip that step entirely.

Either way, we’re left with an industry in which a lot of nonfiction books don’t get looked over by a professional fact-checker.

So Abramson was going from the New York Times, an institution with a team of dedicated fact-checkers, to a medium that left the fact-checking entirely up to her. And judging from the disputes we’ve seen so far, she may have been ill-equipped to handle that transition.

Link to the rest at Vox

PG suggests if the former executive editor of The New York Times doesn’t receive quality service from her publisher, nobody does.

He was reminded of an embarrassing collection of errors in the Times itself in a high-profile article following the death of well-known television journalist, Walter Cronkite, in 2009:

The Times published an especially embarrassing correction on July 22, fixing seven errors in a single article — an appraisal of Walter Cronkite, the CBS anchorman famed for his meticulous reporting. The newspaper had wrong dates for historic events; gave incorrect information about Cronkite’s work, his colleagues and his program’s ratings; misstated the name of a news agency, and misspelled the name of a satellite.

“Wow,” said Arthur Cooper, a reader from Manhattan. “How did this happen?”

The short answer is that a television critic with a history of errors wrote hastily and failed to double-check her work, and editors who should have been vigilant were not.

But a more nuanced answer is that even a newspaper like The Times, with layers of editing to ensure accuracy, can go off the rails when communication is poor, individuals do not bear down hard enough, and they make assumptions about what others have done. Five editors read the article at different times, but none subjected it to rigorous fact-checking, even after catching two other errors in it. And three editors combined to cause one of the errors themselves.

Seemingly little mistakes, when they come in such big clusters, undermine the authority of a newspaper, and senior editors say they are determined to find fixes.

. . . .

What Sam Sifton, the culture editor, ruefully called “a disaster, the equivalent of a car crash,” started nearly a month before Cronkite died, when news began circulating that he was gravely ill. On June 19, Alessandra Stanley, a prolific writer much admired by editors for the intellectual heft of her coverage of television, wrote a sum-up of the Cronkite career, to be published after his death.

Stanley said she was writing another article on deadline at the same time and hurriedly produced the appraisal, sending it to her editor with the intention of fact-checking it later. She never did.

“This is my fault,” she said. “There are no excuses.”

In her haste, she said, she looked up the dates for two big stories that Cronkite covered — the assassination of Martin Luther King and the moment Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon — and copied them incorrectly. She wrote that Cronkite stormed the beaches on D-Day when he actually covered the invasion from a B-17 bomber. She never meant that literally, she said. “I didn’t reread it carefully enough to see people would think he was on the sands of Omaha Beach.”

. . . .

Lorne Manly, Stanley’s editor, read the article but did not catch the mistakes; worse, he made a change that led to another error. Where Stanley had said correctly that Cronkite once worked for United Press, Manly changed it to United Press International, with a note to copy editors to check the name. In the end, it came out United Press and United Press International in the same sentence.

Though the correct date of the moon landing was fresh in his mind, Manly said, he read right over that mistake. Catching it might have flagged the need for more careful vetting. For all her skills as a critic, Stanley was the cause of so many corrections in 2005 that she was assigned a single copy editor responsible for checking her facts. Her error rate dropped precipitously and stayed down after the editor was promoted and the arrangement was discontinued. Until the Cronkite errors, she was not even in the top 20 among reporters and editors most responsible for corrections this year. Now, she has jumped to No. 4 and will again get special editing attention.

. . . .

Janet Higbie, a copy editor, said she started reading the article that Friday and caught the misspelling of the Telstar satellite and the two incorrect dates, but fixes she thought she made didn’t make it into the paper. “I don’t know what happened,” she said. Higbie said she had to drop the story and jump to deadline work, and she assumed that someone else would pick up the editing later. No one did — for four weeks, until Cronkite died late on another busy Friday. “It fell through the cracks,” Higbie said.

. . . .

Two days before his father died, Chip Cronkite sent me an e-mail message labeled, “pre-emptive correction.” He said that CBS, in reviewing its obituary material, had found inaccuracies. “As a life-long admirer of your newspaper,” he said, “may I suggest that you have someone double-check ahead of time?”

Douglas Martin, who had written an advance obit of Cronkite several years earlier, phoned Chip Cronkite. They went over spellings, discussed the cause of death and the like. No one thought to forward Chip Cronkite’s message to the culture department, where Stanley’s appraisal sat.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

Vox is correct in observing that publishing contracts between large (and small) traditional publishers and authors place the responsibility for ensuring the accuracy of all statements of fact contained in the book on the author. If the book includes an error that leads to litigation, again, it’s all on the author, including the publisher’s legal fees.

An attitude common among traditional publishing insiders and their camp followers is that traditionally-published books are simply better than books written and published by indie authors. The publisher’s name on the book is an assurance of quality, hence the higher price of the book, its placement in physical bookstores, etc.

One cannot spend much time speaking and corresponding with traditionally-published authors without hearing tales of slapdashery and ineptitude on the part of their publishers.

For example, one would think that traditional publishers would manifest their most meticulous standards in the contracts between publishers and authors in which the author grants rights to publish a book to a publisher. Such a contract is, of course, the basis upon which the publisher prints and publishes the book, collects money the book generates and passes some of that money on to the author, keeping the large majority for itself.

One would be wrong in such assumptions.

Of course another possibility might be that “most meticulous” is a relative standard for publishers. There is always the question, “Compared to what?”

In the words of one long-ago client of PG’s, “Even his best is none too good.”

Big Publishing, Legal Stuff

9 Comments to “Publishing’s Fact-Checking Problem”

  1. Perhaps the author needs another contract with Diamond Dave Domino down at the Y’all Come Back Saloon, assigning him all the responsibility. If it gets the publishers off the hook…

  2. I have the opinion that any good fact checker needs to approach a work (that claims to be fact) with an attitude of 100% disbelief in whatever the writer has put down on paper.

    Even then, man is not perfect, nor is he perfectible. The best example of this is the poor typesetter who put into print the Commandment of “Thou shalt commit adultery.” This while undoubtedly being a very religious person, and working for somebody who had headsmen handy and was not at all afraid to make use of them.

  3. Even cookbooks don’t get checked. The publishers leave it to the writer to do the testing, which costs money. So recipes that have problems end up in print.

  4. I worked in magazine publishing in the 90s, on a K-III magazine called New Woman. Basically Cosmo Lite. I always stood in awe of the fact-checker. He called every single person quoted in every single article to double-check that the writer got things right.

    The bean-counters in the industry fired the fact-checkers a long time ago. Not just in magazine publishing, they’re gone from nearly everywhere.

    I find it hilarious that Vox is discussing fact-checking when they have been a laughingstock about that for years.

    https://theconcourse.deadspin.com/46-times-vox-totally-fucked-up-a-story-1673835447

    They actually had to correct a story that falsely stated that the Gaza Strip and the West Bank were connected by a bridge. http://thefederalist.com/2014/07/17/voxs-motto-should-be-explaining-the-news-incorrectly-repeatedly/

    A friend of mine keeps trying to use Vox as a source when we discuss things. Hard pass.

    • I used to be a magazine fact-checker. My conversation would start with, “Hello, (name) – is that your name? Is it spelled the following way …” etc. It only felt silly until I got the first correction and realized the error would have gone to print if I hadn’t asked.

  5. Facts are just pesky little things, aren’t they? especially if you lean left and have a vitriolically low opinion of a certain someone residing in D.C.

  6. How ironic that no one has a bigger fact checking problem than Vox themselves.

    • Laziness and willful ignorance knows no political bounds.

      Too much fact checking leads to falsifying tribal belief systems so true believers avoid it as much as possible.

  7. Any rational business would have reprimanded or fired Alessandra Stanley for those errors. What did TNYT do? They assigned her an editor to work on her stuff alone.

    The New York Times has only a tangential and fleeting relation with the truth. I do not understand why anyone reads it.

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