Are you checking sure?

Christal GardiolaThere was no time to be flustered, remembers Christal Gardiola in this new journalist’s essay on her first foray into the world of magazine fact-checking.

National Post columnist Nathalie Atkinson caught me at a bad time. I was on my way to work when she returned my call. One of the sources for a Ryerson Review of Journalism feature I was fact-checking, I’d tried and failed to get Atkinson on the phone for a couple of days. Ring. Ring. I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity, so in my high-heeled boots, I stopped in the middle of a Ryerson hallway, spread out my papers on the floor and calmly responded, “Hi Nathalie, thanks for calling me back….”

The art of fact-checking revolves around time. This is the most valuable lesson I learned as one of the heads of research for the RRJ’s Spring 2009 issue. Along with my instructor, editor and fellow head of research, I assigned my colleagues to confirm facts in each other’s feature pieces. Like clockwork, every checker from our masthead faced the constraints of minutes and seconds. There wasn’t a sliver left for delays: the length (1,500 to 5,000 words) and number of sources (11 to 25 or more) in each story required checkers jump start their duties as soon as they got the copy. (Un)fortunately, because of my position and a dropout in staff, I checked two features instead of one. The strain of going through the process twice was enough to drive me to a Red Bull binge for a couple of days, in addition to my usual three cups of coffee—all before 5 p.m.. (I also cut back on my Keno lottery card purchases after spending much of my cash on caffeine.)

In the midst of production, there was no time to be flustered—only time to remember the rules that our research consultant Veronica Maddocks told us to keep in mind: Don’t read quotes; check facts within quotes. Be prepared. Keep all your files.

Everyone knew what was at stake. Any errors, no matter how small, will damage the magazine’s reputation. As Sara Lippincott, a New Yorker fact-checker from 1966 to 1982, said, inaccuracies “will live on and on in libraries carefully catalogued, scrupulously indexed … silicon-chipped, deceiving researcher after researcher down through the ages, all of whom will make new errors on the strength of the original errors, and so on and on into an exponential explosion of errata.” So at times my masthead and I went to the extremes to make sure everything was correct.

Lora Grady, our front of book editor, volunteered to check Henry Champ’s column about the veteran foreign correspondent’s time covering politically driven stories around the world. In it, Champ mentions wrapping his passport in a bandana and pinning it inside his jacket during his trip to Lebanon in the late ’80s. He worried that the worn-off silver Canadian emblem would be mistaken for an American one. Grady looked for pictures. The images all showed a golden emblem. Grady then spoke to a man from Passports Canada to double-check. “He confirmed my suspicions; the emblem has always been gold,” she said. “So I ticked off the sentence and headed home.” The next morning Grady got a call from the same Passports Canada man saying the emblem was in fact silver from 1985 to 1988.

After checking off every fact, Grady called Champ to go over mistakes in the piece. As she recounted her emblem story, Champ paused and said, “Oh yes, you’re right. It must have been gold then.” Grady then realized Champ got his passport before 1985.

Grady, like the rest of our staff, needed to be “checking sure.” It’s a term we learned from a third-year professor that means a checker is so sure that a fact is true, she would bet her life, or her magazine’s reputation, on it. Generally, this means she has verified the fact with the most authoritative sources. To ensure a seamless operation, we came in during weekends, called out-of-country sources and, in our last resort, settled for e-mail verifications. In between finger cramps from pressing telephone numbers and sounding like a telemarketer for leaving too many voicemail messages, my classmates and I also had to ask some uncomfortable questions: Is The Globe and Mail office lobby made of marble and granite? Do you refer to yourself as a dinosaur? This is in context of how long you’ve been in the industry. Would you say the colour of your building is pink or red? Did you mention during the lecture that you were hung over? In summary you said you were criticized as a “fucking Muslim, Jewish, whore bitch?”  Embarrassment came and left like a gust of wind. If any of my colleagues were shy before fact-checking, they weren’t after.
I certainly lost any hint of timidity after my experience with Ian Pearson. As one of the sources in a last-minute feature, I tried phoning his house again and again on a Sunday afternoon. My instructor said he might be out of town. Sure enough, he was in Vancouver. I sent him an e-mail around seven at night and decided to call it a day. On my way to exit the school, I stopped by the washroom. As I closed the stall and was about to unzip my pants, my cell phone rang. The caller ID read: Ian Pearson. Without hesitation, I picked it up. We said our salutations and I tried quickly to turn the door’s knob. Too late. The toilet flushed automatically. Convinced he heard that untimely sound, I walked to the nearest sink and placed my hand on the motion-censored faucet. After all, I’d hate for Pearson to think I couldn’t be bothered to wash my hands.

Christal Gardiola is a freelance writer based in Toronto.