Register Tuesday | May 23 | 2017

How to Research and Write in a Way Your Fact-Checker Will Appreciate

Most magazines go through a fact-checking process—concurrent to, or after, the editing process—to ensure that every single detail in a piece is accurate. Most of the time, a fact-checker will be assigned to a story, and will be given anywhere from a couple days to a couple months to pull a research report together. They’ll re-interview primary sources, check secondary sources, think about the overall logic of a piece, and double-check small but important details like names and dates.

Before the checker gets to a piece, though, the writer provides them with an annotated copy, contact information for primary sources, and any documents that might be difficult to access. If you’re new to fact-checking as a writer—if you’re just about to hand in your first-ever piece, or you’re transitioning from a daily news environment to a magazine one—there are a few fairly simple things you can do to write and research in a way that will help your fact-checker out later in the process.

  1. Record your interviews. Our goal is to reach out and ask fact-checking questions of every primary source you interviewed, but it doesn’t always work out. Sometimes, the person is unreachable; sometimes, they’re unwilling to participate in the fact-checking process, or they would like to walk back something they’ve said. That brings us into thorny ethical territory—sometimes the right thing to do is to let the person walk it back—but you can see where we’re going with this. It’s always better to have a tape to go back to.

  2. Tell your interviewees that they'll be hearing from a fact-checker, and try give them as much info as possible about the process. If your piece doesn’t have a home yet, tell your interviewee that they might eventually hear from a checker, and then, when the piece finds its home, reach back out and let them know who they’ll be hearing from. Ask your source about their upcoming schedule. If you know they’ll soon be leaving on a two-week vacation, give your editor a heads up. That way, your checker can try to schedule a call before their getaway.

  3. Communicate clearly with your interviewees. If you’ve emailed someone to set up an interview for a piece you’re writing, so they know why you’re talking, great. If you are doing street interviews with your average Joe or Jane, give them a heads-up that you’re recording and get their consent to name them and quote them. If you’re door-knocking a contentious source—someone in a position of power—or catching a politician in an elevator for a quote, things (again!) get a little thornier. It’s generally best to introduce yourself as a writer and it’s always best to record the interaction (you may or may not, legally, be required to let the person know you’re recording)—beyond that, magazines have different rules for fact-checking this kind of work, so it’s best to speak with your editor.

  4. Reach out to everyone implicated in a story. If you’re writing about a deadbeat landlord, for example, you might have rafts of documents and interviews from the tenants’ perspectives—and those perspectives may be what drives your story. But you still need to reach out to the landlord several times, in several different ways—by phone, email and, possibly, in person. Let the person know that you have heard criticisms from others and would like to give them a chance to respond; give them a deadline. The checker will reach out again during the checking process, but they should never be the first person to contact a source.

  5. Annotate the tricky parts of your draft as you go. If you’ve been doing math to calculate the relationship between two parts of a table on page sixty-seven of a government report, insert a quick comment bubble outlining your work after you’ve solved for X. As well: try not to hand your checker a seventy-page study and ask them to wade through it—if possible, indicate which pages the necessary information can be found.

  6. Time-stamp your transcripts. In the event your checker can’t confirm facts with your source directly and has to rely on tapes, time-stamps can be incredibly helpful (especially if an interview is long!). As you’re transcribing, note the amount of time that’s elapsed every few minutes or so. This will help your checker fast forward to the parts of the interview they need most.

  7. Organize your research. This can come in handy particularly for longer features that take months, or maybe even longer, to report: make an excel sheet (or google doc or whatever) and note down your sources, their contact information, when and where you interviewed them, and any notes it might be helpful for your editor or checker to have. (The checker can use this information to jog a source’s memory—people occasionally wholly forget you’ve interviewed them!)

That's it! One final note: it's best to be open, as a writer, to working with a fact-checker throughout the process. They're going to make you look good in the end—and in some cases, they may even save you from a lawsuit. So it's in everyone's best interest to be as responsive and helpful as possible.

Megan Jones is the Assistant Editor of Reader’s Digest and has worked as a fact-checker for a number of Canadian publications. Andrea Bennett is the Editor-in-Chief of Maisonneuve and a fact-checker for Reader’s Digest.