Do Some Research on Fact-Checking

By Mark Nichol

Do you want to be a magazine writer? I know — it’s a highly competitive profession, but I’ve got two words for you (and a bonus hyphen): fact-checking.

What’s that? Fact-checking is an entry-level profession in the magazine industry that can lead to staff or freelance writing opportunities. Fact-checkers are responsible for verifying every quantifiable piece of information in an article: spelling of names and entities such as companies, institutions, and organizations; names of products and services; dates of birth, incorporation, and publication; prices and profits; and more — so much more.

Sound tedious? It can be, but it is also excellent training for reporters and writers: not only do fact-checkers (also called research editors) vet article content, they also often help writers with background research. Once you put in a couple of years as a staff or contract fact-checker, you’ve got a leg up on many other writers when it comes to turning in meticulously researched articles — not to mention getting a crash course in reporting by doing preliminary work for more experienced writers and fact-checking numerous articles.

Fact-checkers are often given brief writing assignments or are even promoted to junior writing positions, but the career ladder doesn’t stop there: Onetime fact-checkers include CNN newsman Anderson Cooper, novelist Jay McInerney, and former Harper’s editor Roger Hodge.

Not every magazine has staff or freelance fact-checkers by that name; sometimes, interns or junior editors fill the role as part of their job duties, or copy editors do at least rudimentary fact-checking. Other publications, with fewer resources, trust writers to get their facts straight. Most newspapers don’t have the time or the budget for this stage, though the German daily Der Spiegel is a notable exception: It employs dozens of fact-checkers.

Publications began employing fact-checkers less than a hundred years ago (the New Yorker, one of the first magazines to do so, even verifies facts in the poetry it publishes), and the profession isn’t going anywhere; even with the revolution in access to information engendered by the Internet, it’s still a vital function. And thanks to online research, it’s much easier to accomplish, though it still requires rigorous attention to detail.

If you’ve tried in vain to break into magazine writing, either as a staff writer or a freelancer, you might want to consider applying to become a fact-checker. You’ll be starting out on the ground floor, but that means you’ll be the foundation of a publication’s reputation for veracity, and if you have what it takes, you’ll likely be noticed and rewarded. And though you’re not guaranteed a promotion, the job is often a stepping stone to work for other publications.

But don’t take my word for it: Do some fact-checking.

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4 Responses to “Do Some Research on Fact-Checking”

  • Ursula

    Mark, you might like to fire your current fact-checker and employ me instead: “Der Spiegel” is a weekly (magazine), not a daily.

    Ursula

  • Mark Nichol

    Entschuldigungen Sie mir bitte, Ursula. I have to fire myself: I didn’t bother to check, but I should have realized that a daily newspaper would not go to such lengths to verify. Thanks for the correction.

  • Tom

    Do fact-checkers check out quotes? How extensive should that be?

  • Mark Nichol

    Tom:

    Some publications do have fact-checkers verify quotations from sources. In my (dated) experience, the staff person called a source and asked them to confirm paraphrases of their quotes, with some exact wording queried as well. I’m not sure whether it’s handled differently now in the email era.

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