Monday, January 30, 2006

Fact checking

Most newspaper copy editors do as much fact checking as triage allows -- names, dates, phone numbers, Web addresses. But there are only so many hours in a day, and they run out fast for a daily publication. So that's newspapers' excuse for not checking out more facts.

Magazines? They seem to do a better job, and I suspect that the New Yorker is one of the best. I was fascinated by this CJR piece detailing "The Secret Life of a Letter to the Editor." The article includes a string of e-mails between Valerie Lawson, biographer of Mary Poppins creator Pamela Travers, and New Yorker editors. Although the point is to show how watered down Lawson's complaints became in the final version of her letter to the editor, you also get a good look at how much fact checking the paper did on the article in question.

Now, compare that example to those from today's Wall Street Journal article on fact checking in nonfiction books. Publishers say it just costs too much and that they have to rely on the honor code with their writers. But others are calling bullshit -- saying money used to be spent on editing but has been shifted recently to publicity. Everyone just wants to get those books on Oprah.

A solution has been offered: Publishers should add a clause to writers' contracts saying they are representing facts to the best of their knowledge. If authors are found to be egregious liars, publishers can sue them for breach of contract.

One reader of James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces" is taking a different tack -- suing the publisher on the basis that it misrepresented a fiction book as nonfiction.

Looks like it's not just newspapers suffering form a lack of credibility.


Post a Comment

<< Home