Please Don’t Shoot the Fact-Checker

Anthropologists seeking to communicate their research to general audiences are likely to work with fact-checkers. Here’s some advice on how to handle the process if you’ve been interviewed by a reporter.

I write a lot of emails that make me seem much less educated than I am. Why? I often work as a professional fact-checker.

In this capacity, it’s my responsibility to confirm the accuracy of the words someone else has written. I’m not conducting original research; I’m making sure that another writer got their facts right.

This usually entails contacting the experts the author chose to interview and asking them a series of questions to determine whether or not the wealth of information they provided to the author was adequately distilled into a handful of words. I frequently do this by rewriting the author’s article into a series of “yes” or “no” questions.

Years ago, I was fact-checking for a glossy magazine and wrote an email to a well-respected biological anthropologist who had been quoted in the story I was working on. I asked: “Did marriage evolve so that we can find someone to fall in love with, in order to reproduce?” I’d read enough Gayle Rubin to answer this question from the point of view of a cultural anthropologist. I had to remind myself that, as a fact-checker, my job was not to challenge the statement the scholar had made. My responsibility was to confirm that these were words this media-savvy scholar would have spoken. She answered with a simple “yes.”

If this anthropologist and I were ever to meet at the AAA, I’m sure that the same query would receive a more detailed response. But, given her vast experience with the media, she knew that I wasn’t seeking new information from her; I’d intentionally requested a simple one-word answer to my question because I was trying to confirm whether or not a snippet of text that someone else had written was accurate enough to appear in an article for general readers.

Years later, while working at a different publication, I contacted an anthropologist with very little media experience to confirm information culled from an interview he’d given about cultural change in Africa. I posed what, admittedly, must have seemed like an ignorant question: “Have Africans been devastated by colonialism?” In response, I received several hundred words about the differences between French, Portuguese, and British colonial administrations and the multitude of African responses to them. I wasn’t able to incorporate a word of this generous scholar’s lengthy answer into the article; it had already been written.

As an anthropologist, I thought this expert’s response to my query was fascinating. As a fact-checker racing to meet her deadline, I found it frustrating. By the time a piece reaches the fact-checking phase, most new information is a distraction. All the fact-checker really wants an expert to tell her is whether or not the journalist who wrote an article has fabricated, exaggerated, or misinterpreted what the source said when interviewed. If she finds errors of fact, the fact-checker must correct them with as few words as possible.

If you’ve been contacted by a fact-checker, trust that he has crafted the questions he asks you deliberately. He wants to make the process of verifying the accuracy of the information contained in an article as quick and painless as possible for every one; the more concise your responses to his queries, the better.

This certainly does not mean that you should always feel pressured to answer questions with a single word. If a fact-checker writes to ask: “Do Brazilians love plastic surgery?” It would be appropriate to answer, “Plastic surgery is very popular in Brazil.” You could even write back, “More plastic surgeries are performed in Brazil than anywhere else in the world.” Either response will help the fact-checker tweak the author’s words to make them more accurate; neither response is likely to push the article above its allotted word count.

By the time a fact-checker is called in to work on an article, it has probably been through upwards of five drafts, and has been trimmed down to fit the word limits of the publication. Very little of what you said to an author in an interview is likely to have made the cut.

Therefore, it is considered extremely bad form to ask a fact-checker to give you a copy of an article so that you can fact-check it yourself. Most reporters speak to several experts as they research a piece. Later, they synthesize the information they’ve gathered into an original text. Sometimes authors receive conflicting information and opinions from their sources; they use the information that best serves the story they have decided to write. Fact-checkers later follow-up with all the sources, not to verify that they agree with the author, but to verify that the author’s synthesis hews to the facts.

Journalists cherry pick information to craft an article that is informative, accurate, and compelling to readers. Editors cut out unnecessary caveats to pack as much essential information as possible into each column of text. Fact-checkers then intervene to guarantee the accuracy of what remains. Please don’t blame the fact-checker for the simple fact that there is not much room for nuance in an informative 1500-2500 word piece.

Rubin, Gayle. Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.

I am a cultural anthropologist and professional fact-checker. My research examines the causes and the consequences of youth violence in Brazil. Specifically, work is concerned with understanding how institutions and policies that have been created to curb youth violence can ramp-up its practice.

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