Inaccuracy is an ugly thing. Just ask the Pretty Woman.
The editors of Vanity Fair were probably thrilled to get a personal letter from actress Julia Roberts following writer Ned Zeman's summer profile of her. Thrilled, that is, until they saw she was writing to correct a major error from the article. "My late father was born Walter Roberts, not Walter Motes, and his children carry the name proudly," Roberts wrote.
The journalism adage, "If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out," suggests a lot about how inaccuracies get into print. Too often, we writers make assumptions about information, trust our sources (even dear old Mom) too much, swear we got that number right the first time or chalk a notion from our imperfect memories up to "common knowledge." It's easy to get wrapped up in a beautifully told anecdote, an engaging lead, a stylish ending. "Once you get it written, it seems right," says Mary Best Ellis, editor of the 60,000-copy circulation regional monthly Our State: Down Home in North Carolina. "Remember to question yourself."
Why should I bother?
Because editors are going to question you. Every magazine editor evaluates an article for accuracy. At some magazines — generally those with a small staff or tight deadlines — this evaluation is kept simple: a double-check on the names and phone numbers, a review of past clips about the topic, a call to the writer to clarify a confusing or contentious point.
At the most thorough publications — generally those with a larger budget and staff or lengthy production times — fact checkers comb through your text to verify every sentence. They'll retrace your research steps by calling your sources, going back to the books you mention, visiting pertinent web pages, consulting a reference librarian or even running your article past an independent expert. Depending on the topic, it may even be reviewed by a publisher's lawyer.
Amazed? You shouldn't be, say editors. Mistakes, misquotes or misinterpretations can result in more than mild embarassment. "We don't have a place for corrections," says Martha Miller, health and fitness editor of 7.6 million-copy circulation Better Homes and Gardens. "It's life and death stuff and you can't be wrong. It has to be the right advice."
Ashley Arthur is the copy chief of Southern Living, a 3 million-copy circulation regional monthly. She explains that credibility is important to the success of the magazine, no matter what the topic: "To me the most important thing is the facts. If readers can't trust us, they won't buy the magazine."
When someone on staff — or a reader — finds an error in your story, the editors notice. "We have had some people who have just riddled their stories with woeful errors," says Michael von Glahn, senior editor of Cleveland magazine, a 50,000-copy circulation monthly in Ohio. "Eventually you're going to fall out of the stable."
How do you keep in the running? The best approach is really the same no matter how much (or how little) effort the magazine you're writing for puts into fact checking. If the editors are trusting you to have done a professional job, you must make sure your research is reliable. And if they're checking on your every move, you want your work to pass that test.
Improving your accuracy is not about taking a magic perfection pill. It's about technique. Here is editors' expert advice:
Ask about the process
Not every magazine checks articles the same way. The editors' expectations may be outlined in your contract or assignment letter. BH&G's Miller requires her writers to provide an annotated copy of their manuscripts — footnoted like a high school research paper so she can match the information in the article to the list of sources as she fact checks.
The staff at Family Money, a 500,000-copy circulation bimonthly published by BH&G's parent Meredith Corporation, is proud of its rigorous fact-checking system. "Here fact checking is not an after-the-fact thing," says managing editor Dan Weeks. "We put the fact checkers and writers together. It's a cooperative venture." The writers know from the start that they'll need to provide complete contact information for their sources and help the fact checker assigned to their story verify that each piece of information is correct. Family Money also shows checking copies of the story to anyone quoted for them to flag errors of fact or interpretation.
Go in with the right attitude
Fact checking isn't about attacking your work or saying that your editor doesn't trust you. Family Money's Weeks says, "Good writers appreciate that kind of backup."
At most magazines, every writer's work gets equal treatment — newcomers, longtime contributors, staff members or Pulitzer Prize winners.
Be a pack rat
While you're researching, gather business cards, brochures, ticket stubs, menus, maps, corporate annual reports, magazine or newspaper clippings, articles from professional journals, web page printouts, library books and photos. Consider tape-recording interviews. By the time you're done, you'll have a bulging folder to rely on as you sit down to write, and a paper trail to pass on to the magazine staff or refer to when the editor calls with a question.
Beware of shaky sources
Information and experts are plentiful, but not all sources are reliable.
"We've run into problems with people getting incorrect information from the Internet," warns Our State's Ellis. "I don't really trust it completely yet."
If you've got a choice between a Whitney Houston web site designed by her recording label, says Ebony senior editor Charles Whitaker, and a Whitney Houston web site designed by a teen fan in Michigan, pick the recording label site as your source.
The same criteria apply for selecting interviewees. Yes, a family doctor in Florida will tell you everything she knows about hypothermia, but when was the last time she actually treated a patient for it? "You need to speak to people who are leaders in their field," is the advice BH&G's Miller gives her health writers. As double verification, she asks experts from organizations such as the American Cancer Society or the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation to read stories to spot errors.
Listen to your gut
You've researched your story carefully, written it and rewritten the tough parts. Frankly, you're sick of working with it. Put it down for a bit so you can go back and identify the parts that may still be problematic. Call up your sources again or check a reference, says Ebony's Whitaker, "whenever there's a nagging sensation that something's wrong." It will never be a waste of your time, or your source's time.
Britta Waller is associate editor of Sky, the in-flight magazine of Delta Air Lines.
Do your part to find correct information with these two resources:
Facts in a Flash: A Research Guide for Writers by Ellen Metter.
Easy Access: The Reference Handbook for Writers by Katherine H. Adams and Michael L. Keene, (Mayfield Publishing)