Checking facts when facts change

During my days as a newspaper copy editor, I did a lot of fact checking. Is this name spelled right? Is that the right phone number? Is so-and-so really CEO or is she CFO?

I don’t spend my time in a newsroom anymore, but I still do a lot of fact checking — for presentations, lectures, freelance projects, etc. In fact, I think one of my biggest fact-checking projects ever was for a textbook I edited.

In that project, I was presented with an interesting fact-checking problem. The book is part of the open source textbook effort, and as such, it exists only online or as a PDF (unless you want to print it out yourself).

So when something is out there online, how do you account for the fact that facts can change? For instance, at one point the textbook discussed the number of search results returned on Google for an unusual event. It was low (around 6) on the day the author wrote the chapter. By the time I did the editing, it was well into the double figures.

And I figure by this time next year, it will be higher.

In the old days, it was clear that the facts in a book were based on life on the day of publication. But in an online-only book, do we need to be constantly updating information as part of the fact-checking process? That would get rather tedious after a while.

In the case of this book, I asked the author to add an “as of XXX date” before the information. When you read the book online, you don’t see a clear date anywhere, so adding that seemed vital, especially when it is so easy for the reader to check.

In other spots on the internet, there may be a date stamp that helps out. But it’s worth thinking about this before you edit something that has a long shelf life. Facts do change. How do we keep fact checking from being an never ending process?

For your consideration: What my editing class sees in the future

I teach editing at the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communication. So I’m often discussing unfamiliar “rules” with students.

For instance, in discussing use of comprised and composed, 100 percent of the students in the summer 2019 class said “comprised of” is correct and “compose of” is wrong. After we discussed why that’s not the case, one student asked me if I think that distinction will go away.

I’m not sure on this one. But I had already told them I think “whom” will be jettisoned from everyday language at some point. It’s part of my “Language is Living” lecture.

Right about the time we discussed the definition of decimated (in my days as an editing students, I would have gotten a red X for using it in any way except “reduced by 10 percent”), I asked what they’d like to see change.

Here’s part of the list:

Composed/comprised

Who/Whom

Affect/effect (I told them not to expect this to happen soon)

Beginning a sentence with a conjunction (I told them they can do this now, but apparently some of their liberal arts professors don’t agree.)

It/they (They’d like to see “they” as the collective pronoun.)

What do you think?

 

Is this resource reliable 2.0

Today I’m presenting a session about fact checking and verification at the ACES national conference in Providence, Rhode Island.

The 2.0 means it’s a continuation of a session from 2018, which was checking reliability for standard online information. 2.0 looks at things like photos, video, tweets and user-generated content.

As part of my “save a tree” stand, I’m presenting the handout here digitally. So if you’re there, don’t bother writing down those URLs.

It’s National Grammar Day!

After 35 years of editing and teaching editing, I can definitely tell you that grammar is important.

But I’m not sure I can say it any better than the National Council of Teachers of English has, so for National Grammar Day 2019, I’ll repeat what they’ve said.

“Why is grammar important?” The National Council of Teachers of English has a good answer:

“Grammar is important because it is the language that makes it possible for us to talk about language. Grammar names the types of words and word groups that make up sentences not only in English but in any language. As human beings, we can put sentences together even as children — we can all do grammar. But to be able to talk about how sentences are built, about the types of words and word groups that make up sentences — that is knowing about grammar. And knowing about grammar offers a window into the human mind and into our amazingly complex mental capacity,” according to the NCTE.

“People associate grammar with errors and correctness. But knowing about grammar also helps us understand what makes sentences and paragraphs clear and interesting and precise.”

(And I say repeat, because I also shared this on this blog for National Grammar Day 2015.)

Editing beyond the red flags

I recently wrote an article for the ACES: The Society for Editing website on how to spot red flags in copy so you can most efficiently doing fact checking while editing.

One of the points is that certain things should raise red flags, such as:

  • A person’s name and address
  • Numbers, including dollar amounts and rankings
  • Data and polls, especially data that seems to be cherrypicked; look for the science behind a poll and its completeness
  • Inconsistency and repetition
  • Hearsay
  • Out-of-context examples and references
  • Information or visuals that don’t ring true or are meant to distract or misrepresent — in other words, something that triggers your “BS detector”
  • Innuendo
  • Biased sources
  • Absolutes — look for “the only,” “the best,” “the number one,” “highest,” or “worst” statements.

So when you see one of those red flags, what do you do?

Find that information yourself and see if it checks out. If you are editing something where the author links to information, check out that website and make sure it passes your credibility test. (Does the publisher seem credible? The author? Does the site look professional? Is it up to date? Is there any bias?)

Next find a second source for the same information. Very few things are only available from a primary source. But if you find a primary source (such as a public record), you will have more confidence in its credibility.

And go primary: Look for the original source of any information. Then look at the date of the original and make sure that information hasn’t changed in the interim.

My advice: check and recheck; see it twice before believing.

Why learn HTML ?

I teach a class call digital media tools and as part of that I go over basic coding.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not professional coder. I suspect that given a lot of time, I could coding a really cool website. But it would take a long time and there would be a whole lot of bad looks along the way.

But knowing coding isn’t just about being able to build your own website (when you can find easy to follow off the shelve website builders online). If you work in a job that uses any type of content management system, understanding coding will help you find the bugs on the website.

It’s the visual part of a copy editing job — let’s not just fix the misspellings and bad grammar, let’s fix the bad image breaks and lines of text that are too big or too small or too bold..

There are places you can start online. If you are a self-learner, try the W3 School. or Codeacademy.

What I really want to say is get out there and try. It’s a good project for the new year.

Revisiting the editing checklist

I’ve posted this before, but it gets lost among the other items and it’s a good thing to revisit frequently.

Get in the habit of using a checklist when you are editing. This one is geared toward news editing but works for all types of editing.

You may not actually check things off, but reviewing the list before each session of editing will help you remember the big and small things that are most likely to cause errors.

 

GERRI BERENDZEN’S COPY EDITOR CHECKLIST

Critical editing

  1. Does the story make sense?
  2. Are all of the major questions answered?
  3. Is the story fair? Who or what might be missing?
  4. Is the background complete enough that all readers will have a sense of relevance?
  5. Are there any sensitivity issues in either individual word usage or description?
  6. Do links go to something that is relevant to the story and that answers the questions raised? Are the links from a trusted source of information? Are there any bias issues with the links?

Accuracy checks

  1. Are the names correct? Are they spelled the same in every instance? (Check against headlines, cutlines, other display text.)
  2. Are the ages and dates correct?
  3. Are the titles correct?— check for people, but also for businesses, institutions, books, works of art, etc.
  4. Are the locations, addresses correct?
  5. Did you check the phone numbers against directories or call the numbers?
  6. DID YOU DO THE MATH?
  7. Did you check website URLs to make sure they work?
  8. Did you check the links to make sure they work?

 

Grammar and spelling

  1. Did you do a spell check. (1A: Have you checked the spelling of any foreign words.)
  2. Did you check major grammar points: subject-verb agreement, pronoun use, antecedents, parallel construction?
  3. Did you check word usage?

 

Display type

  1. Is the headline accurate and balanced?
  2. Have you checked the headline, cutlines and display type against the story copy?