Register Tuesday | September 19 | 2017

Checking in a Post-Fact World: An Interview with Amelia Schonbek

Amelia Schonbek is a writer and fact-checker living in New York. She was also the Associate Editor of Maisonneuve from December 2011 to September 2012. I caught up with her recently to chat about fact-checking—the nuts, the bolts, the ins and outs in our brave new post-fact, “fake news” world.

Andrea Bennett: First, could you tell me about how long you’ve been a checker and where you’ve checked?

Amelia Schonbek: I’ve been checking since I was an intern at the Walrus when I was 24. The internship at that time was totally focused on teaching people how to be good fact-checkers. Then, as the Associate Editor at Maisonneuve, I oversaw fact-checking there. When I moved to New York, after graduating from school—I did a master’s—I started getting freelance fact-checking work at different magazines here.

AB: So you’ve been fact-checking for five years?

AS: Yeah, about.

AB: The other day I realized that I actually find fact-checking work harder than writing. I was wondering if that’s something that resonates with you as someone who writes as well as checks?

AS: I think it’s both easier and harder. There are certain things about checking that I really enjoy not having to think about. You don’t have to make the roadmap for the reporting. When I’m doing my own work, making all of those small decisions about which road to pursue can sometimes feel really overwhelming, so I like the fact that when you’re fact-checking you have the plan, and you know what the reporting is going to look like.

But the flipside, as the checker, there’s a ton of time pressure and you don’t always have a lot of control over your sources. You can’t just find another source if people don’t get back to you. And people can choose not to cooperate in fact-checking and then it’s a much larger problem than if they’ve chosen not to participate in the reporting process. Things can go wrong in a much more acute way.

AB: Could you talk a little bit about what happens when a source is not cooperative with the fact-checking process?

AS: It doesn’t happen that often, actually. Usually the standard argument, and the one that makes the most sense to me as a person, not as a fact-checker, is that going through the process doesn’t actually take that much time, but ultimately you’re the one whose story is being told, and it’s really in your best interest to make sure that every element of it is accurate.

If someone is uncertain, I try to have a conversation with them: look, we’re doing this because we want to get it right, and you also probably want to get it right.

Beyond that, sometimes, there have been situations where we haven’t been able to get in touch with a person. And actually, once, there was a story where the person named had actually died. In that case, we got records and documents. Sometimes you can talk to other sources around the person and see if those people can help convince them. Sometimes you lean on the reporter and say hey, this is actually your source, can you run interference?

But honestly when you go to the person and tell them you want to get it right, most people respond positively to that.

AB: What about in the cases where it’s not in the person’s best interests to have an article come out about them? Someone’s written about a deadbeat landlord, or…

AS: Probably what would happen, right, is that you’ve done a story about the tenant of the deadbeat landlord, and gotten their side of the story, and the reporter probably has tried to talk to the landlord, and they haven’t commented. As a checker, if that were the situation, you would be going back to the landlord to give it one last try but probably they’re going to give you a “no comment” again. But if they participated the first time, and then re-thought it, then at that point you just really hope that the interview is on tape.

AB: What kinds of circumstances make a check feel satisfying to you?

AS: I really like to work on pieces where there’s enough nuance that you’re able to go in and really have conversations with people. The least interesting assignments are the ones where you’re just getting a lot of canned responses. Pieces where the stories being told are not simple are actually really interesting pieces to fact-check, because they require more intellectual energy. I feel like the most interesting issues that come up in checking are the ones where you’re figuring out what is factual truth versus what is broader truth, if that makes sense.

AB: Could you expand on that a little?

AS: Factual truth, you know, the way that something looks on the surface, is not always indicative of the broader truth of a situation. Someone’s actions on the surface could tell you that they’re one type of person. But something might have been motivating those actions, or there could have been any number of circumstances that led a person to do something that isn’t in keeping with the larger truth about their life. That’s really interesting to me.

AB: When I asked you if I could interview you, you brought up the idea of fact-checking in almost, well, a post-fact political and news environment. What is the role of checking in this kind of environment?

AS: I’ve been thinking about these kinds of things a lot, obviously. It affects the job in a day-to-day way in that there’s just less certainty about which sources to trust. As a checker, relying on news sources is not something that I ever really love doing, but often just have to do because it’s the only way to verify something. There’s uncertainty about the real root source of information and whether it’s trustworthy.

But there are also larger questions to be asked about what the role of fact-checking is or should be in the context of a government like the one we now have, and how much of a paper or magazine’s resources—should we be spending time fact-checking and correcting every lie, or should we be focusing, as journalists, on telling the larger stories of how certain policies are impacting people?

I tend to think that we need to correct the record, but I worry that that is going to swallow up more expansive reporting.

AB: Have you ever come across a writer who fabricated parts of their story?

AS: I’ve never fact-checked a story where it was definitively proven that something was fabricated. I’ve definitely worked on pieces where I had pretty significant questions about certain sources and whether they actually provided material. There was one case where I actually recommended pulling the entire piece. That didn’t end up happening but it also wasn’t my call.

When I have serious doubts about something, and it’s not foundational to the story, I’ll recommend cutting it. If it’s foundational to the story, then you need to have a much larger and more intense conversation with the editor of the piece. I happily have never really been in that situation.

I really, really wish I could have been a fly on the wall in the conversations about the Sabrina Ruben Erdely piece at Rolling Stone, the now-infamous piece that relied heavily on one source who fabricated much of her story. I imagine that it would have been really hard to be the fact-checker in that position.

AB: Is it basically because of the sensitivity of the subject matter that they didn’t do as much due diligence as they should have?

AS: Yeah. It was a case where the source had described a really horrific sexual assault, and the reporter, I think rightly in a lot of ways, didn’t want to re-traumatize the source. But that led down this road where a lot of due diligence didn’t get done, and a lot of interviews that should have been pursued weren’t pursued. I don’t know what the process looked like or what material the fact-checker got ahold of, but I can imagine a lot of anxious days and nights. 

AB: I feel like now, especially after I’ve worked as a checker, when I’ve finished my first interview with a source who’s not totally sure they want to share their story, I try to make sure that I explain what the process is going to entail. Maybe gently at the end of that first interview, but a little more later on.

AS: It’s also just respectful to your sources to make sure they know what they’re facing. It’s not always possible. I think you want someone to know—one way or another, you’re probably going to have to talk about this with a couple different people.

AB: Is there anything you’ve learned to do differently since starting out?

AS: I’ve certainly learned to be more brazen. Fact-checking was the thing that got me over any and all discomfort talking on the phone. I think I’ve learned a lot about how to approach talking to people, and how to structure an interview that gets people to a place where they’re ready to talk about a difficult thing. I think you don’t always see that when you see a finished story and the information has been totally scrambled so you have no idea, really, what the conversations were like that led to the piece. The thing that people always say about fact-checking is that it’s like reporting a story in reverse, but actually I think it’s way more complicated than that. It’s untangling a lot of different threads. I’ve learned a lot of things about interviewing from fact-checking. Also, the more you do it, the more you become familiar with research and the range of things that are available. I can find a lot of stuff in weird places on the internet. That’s a good skill to have. And sometimes a creepy skill to have.

AB: How do you think that being a fact-checker has informed the way that you now read a longform piece?

AS: It’s definitely made me way more skeptical. Of everything. I think it’s made me a much more literate consumer of the news, which is something now, in these awful new political times, I wish for everybody. When I read the news now, a lot of the time I can have a good hunch about where stuff came from. With some stories, I have a feeling that the reporting is a little bit shoddy. The flipside is also true: sometimes you see something, and can really appreciate that it’s  solidly built.

Any time that I read anything in a book that’s not rigorously sourced and footnoted, I’m sort of like, well, I know that this book probably wasn’t fact-checked, so who knows! Sometimes I wish I could read literary nonfiction like a normal person. It changes how you look at some writers for better or for worse.

AB: I think, oftentimes, it feels to the writer and editor like they have to make a decision between narrative tension and revealing where the information in a piece came from. At this point in my life and my career and myself as a reader, I prefer for the source of information to be clear. I’m curious about where you stand?

AS: That’s tough. I think, honestly, that books are better suited to transparency around this than magazine pieces for the simple fact that in a book you can have lengthy descriptions of your sourcing at the back. I love when reporters write really detailed source notes and I will go back and read them and look back at their reporting. There’s this amazing book I just read about the foster care system and this one legal case. It was written by Nina Bernstein, who’s just a total ace former New York Times reporter. And her source notes are maybe fifteen pages long. It was fascinating. She goes back and explains all the legal precedent that she was interested in… it just gives you this really complete picture of how the book was put together. I do think that there’s a way, even in magazine stories, to be transparent about where stuff came from and not to write like a super choppy, ugly piece. I think that there’s a way to do it artfully, and I really appreciate when writers do it.

AB: Oh! I have one more question for you: from my limited knowledge/scans of tables of contents, it seems like fact checkers skew female, and writers skew male. Do you run up against gendered dynamics in your work? How do writers respond when you point out their factual errors?

AS: Yeah, for sure. I've worked with some great writers, men and women, who are very invested in the checking process and are grateful to have another set of eyes on their work. But it's definitely not always the case. There are the typical interactions with shitty dudes: male writers being super defensive when I ask them to back up their reporting, or condescending to me, or saying, “You can probably Google that in five  minutes,” when I ask them for a source. (If I'm taking the time to email you about something, I probably already spent a fair amount of time trying to find it in the usual places.)

What's far more important, and frustrating, is when you're working with a writer who has a really hard time being wrong. I mean, fact checkers have to be comfortable being the bearers of bad news: you're the one who's figured out that a writer has misunderstood a study, or mischaracterized a source's opinion, or cited outdated statistics. And maybe the accurate information doesn't actually support the writer's point as clearly. This happens literally to everybody. Even fact-checkers get stuff wrong when we write stories. That's why the process is so important. But some writers kind of lose it when they find out they've gotten it wrong. They totally lash out. And in my experience, that only happens when I'm working with male writers. So I can't help but wonder how things would be different if I were a guy. Because what I've found in trying to manage those situations is that the more confident and knowledgeable I seem, the angrier the dude gets. But if I act docile, try to make it seem like the changes we need to make were his idea, rather than mine, then it becomes much easier. Those are the moments that make me incredibly angry.