Check the facts: 10 tips for copy editors

Checking facts is part of some copy editors’ jobs. When I have trained copy editors on newspaper desks, I tell them that the main fact-checkers are the writers, followed by the line editors. But I also tell copy editors that inaccuracy in a published piece hurts everyone’s credibility.

I did not learn to check facts in my first few years as a copy editor. I was more focused on correcting grammar, usage and style and on writing a good headline. But when I began working at The News & Observer in 1987, the point of fact-checking was driven home. We copy editors were held responsible for mistakes that slipped through. I also developed a healthy skepticism about writers and line editors. As I have noticed errors slip through the editing at our central publishing center, I am reminded once again that copy editors can’t trust everything they read.

Today’s time-strapped newspaper desks have precious little time for fact-checking. Perhaps your job (as a freelancer or in another publishing field) allows you more time if fact-checking is a part of your duties.

Here are 10 basic fact-checking tips. By no means is my list definitive. Editors have many more things to be aware of — fairness, balance and internal consistency among them.

1. If a date is mentioned in the story, either recent or historical, check it. Nothing will undermine credibility like misstating the date of a historic event. Even if you are almost certain that Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, check it. If a writer refers to the Enlightenment being a part of the 17th and 18th century, check it. (I just did.)

2. If the name of a well-known person appears in a story and you have any hesitation about it at all, check it. I can’t even count the number of times I have corrected the spelling of actor Dan Aykroyd’s name. You should also check the spelling of lesser-known people if you have time or doubts.

3. If a writer uses a place name that you are unfamiliar with or that is often misspelled, check it. The copy that I read most often has North Carolina names that need to be checked. (Alleghany, not Allegheny, is one.)

4. If there is arithmetic in a story, check it. Keep a calculator handy. If a writer says that the Declaration of Independence was signed 235 years ago, check it (2011 – 1776 = 235). If a percentage change is mentioned, check it. If a person’s age appears in a story and you can check it, do. Check the birth date of well-known people and do the math.

5. If the story refers to a number of items within the story (15 steps to better health, 10 reasons to use an iPad), count the items. Make sure a well-known list (12 zodiac signs, 50 states) is complete if it is meant to be.

6. If a story refers to someone as “the late,” make sure the person is dead. Also, if a story refers to someone you remember as having died, check it. I once caught a reference to Howard Jarvis, the California property tax protest leader, as scheduled to appear at a local anti-tax rally. Jarvis had died a few years earlier.

7. If a story uses a quote that seems off (a teacher misusing grammar, a politician or a law enforcement officer seeming to say the opposite of what you’d expect), check the quote with the writer. Sometimes a writer drops the “not” in a quote.

8. If a story refers to a direction, check it. That may mean getting out a map and looking at the direction. I recently read a published story that referred to Morganton, N.C., as a two-hour drive east of Charlotte, N.C. Having grown up near both Morganton and Charlotte, I was 99.9 percent sure that Morganton was northwest of Charlotte, but I pulled out my North Carolina map to check. (I was correct. I’d also question whether it was a two-hour drive and would have checked that if I had been the copy editor on the story.)

9. If a story refers to a recent event (a crime, the passage of legislation), check a previous story to see whether the facts mesh. If they don’t, though, don’t assume that one story is right and the other is wrong. You have to do more checking.

10. If something seems odd to you, check it. This is a lesson I’ve had to learn over and over. Don’t risk letting a mistake slip through.

I would like to hear your fact-checking tips and examples. Please comment on this post if you have something to add.

16 Responses to “Check the facts: 10 tips for copy editors”

  1. Heather Johnson

    These are great tips! I especially like number six. I’ve always checked spelling of names, but I usually haven’t checked people for vital signs. ;-)

  2. Carol Zuegner

    Pam, this is a great list. And a great reminder as I put together my syllabus to make sure I have an assignment that includes all of them.

  3. Gael

    Check phone numbers. Even the ones for your own workplace. I’ve had to fix our own phone numbers many times (on copy for press releases and brochures).

    • Pam Nelson

      Gael, that is an excellent one! I have been burned by wrong phone numbers and email addresses for staff members.

  4. Deborah Potter

    Excellent list, and not just for copy editors. In today’s understaffed newsrooms, reporters need to do their own fact-checking before submitting stories. I’d add one more: If a story refers to something in the superlative (the first, the biggest, etc.), make sure it really is.

  5. Gail Marie

    My favorite misspelled North Carolina place name is Umstead, which often sprouts a P in the writing process and becomes Umpstead.

    Proofreading is then pruning.

  6. Jacq Jolie

    Great advice – I see so many published errors that have been missed by who knows how many people in the publication process. This is a perfect check-list for time-poor writers and editors.

  7. Bruce Siceloff

    Thanks for checking our facts, Pam, and especially my facts.

  8. Jeri Dansky

    Check any URLs. I’ve found plenty that were wrong.

    Also, check the spelling of all proper nouns. I’ve found wrong name of restaurants, theaters, movies, etc.

  9. Mac-Jordan Degadjor

    Thanks for this great post, Pam.
    Will definitely share with my colleague regional editors on the Future Challenges project by the Bertelsmann Foundation. Cheers

  10. Laura

    Do you have any great reference resources you turn to often when fact-checking? I’d hate to think people might settle for Googling…

    • Pam Nelson

      Laura, for show business names I use imdb.com. We in North Carolina have a wonderful resource for place names: The North Carolina Gazetteer. I also edit food copy and use The New Food Lover’s Companion, a handy reference book by Sharon Tyler Herbst.

      And I do resort to Googling but try to choose the best links to follow to find an authoritative answer. Government agencies’ websites are generally reliable and they are certainly easier to navigate that they were 10 years ago. Business names and other proper names can be reliably checked on websites, too.

      • jen

        Good call on IMDB. I also use it to check movie/TV credits to make sure actors and filmmakers actually worked on the movie or show a reporter has linked them to.

  11. Rhonda

    Be careful with dates — they can depend on the time zone you’re writing in/for. For example, the date that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon was ’2:56 UTC July 21, 1969′ (according to Wikipedia — yeah, I know, not the best source…). ‘UTC 2:56′ this was just before 11:00 am on July 21 in my time zone, and just before 8:00 pm on July 20 in Los Angeles (for example).

    As a result, there are many US sources that state the moon landing as taking place on July 20, as that was the date in the US, even though it was already July 21 in UTC time and in other places in the world.