Tuesday 24 August 2010

F*ck, I know I saw that somewhere ...

I spend more time than I like to think of fact-checking stuff online, mostly for blog posts and my radio spots.* My bad, I know - I should be using offline resources as well as online. But sometimes I'm prompted to think - who's fact-checking the fact-checkers?

Are our publishing houses and art galleries employing fact-checkers? How about the art mags? Goodness knows in the editorial work I've done it's never been made explicit to me that I need to relentlessly review every name, date, title, quote, anecdote and beyond. Certainly I've never had a piece of fact-checked writing handed back to me.

Last year in the New Yorker (sadly only the abstract is available online) John McPhee wrote an interesting account of what it's like to be a fact-checker at the magazine - a venerable role at a venerable institution. The piece started

Sara Lippincott retired as an editor at this magazine in the early nineteen-nineties, having worked in The New Yorker’s fact-checking department from 1966 until 1982. She had a passion for science. In 1973, a long piece of the writer’s called “The Curve of Binding Energy” received her full-time attention for three or four weeks and needed every minute of it. Explaining her work to an audience at a journalism school, Sara once said, “Each word in the piece that has even a shred of fact clinging to it is scrutinized, and, if passed, given the checker’s imprimatur, which consists of a tiny pencil tick.”

The pencils are obviously writ large in the fact-checker's mind: Virginia Heffernan's recent piece in the New York Times also begins with the pencils

The day I became a fact-checker at The New Yorker, I received one set of red pencils and one set of No. 2 pencils.

So I'm curious - who's got their pencils out in New Zealand?

* I was reminded this when I read two items on the same story this morning - the Guardian and the NYT on the recent discovery that the moon has shrunk (barely, and slowly - no need to freak out). The Brits said 200 metres and the Yanks 200 yards and while we're quibbling over less than 20 metres, this is science we're talking about - the discipline of exactitude, ferchrissakes.

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