Factchecking: Off the rails

Checking sure? Prue Hemelrijk and the golden age of fact-checking—and why magazines will never see such rigour again. This week we feature Suniya Kukaswadia‘s feature for the spring issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

Prue Hemelrijk sits at her desk on her first day at The Canadian, a national general interest magazine. She’s unsure what’s in store for her as editor Harry Bruce, carrying a manuscript, makes his way toward her. He sets it on her desk and says, “We need to do something called fact-checking. Do you know what that is?”

She has no idea.

“I think they check the facts,” says Bruce.

Hemelrijk takes the manuscript and starts going through it line-by-line, underlining everything that looks like a fact. Then, in the margins, she notes where she thinks the information came from in her neat, economical writing and starts making calls.

Soon she is a pro, catching errors and sparring with writers over corrections. Earl McRae is in his office at the magazine when Hemelrijk comes to see him about a profile he wrote on a retired athlete. She has his manuscript in her hand and he can see all sorts of scribblings in the margin. “Oh God,” he thinks. “What the hell?”

“Earl, he says his stomach is not fat,” Hemelrijk says. “When he sits down it appears fat, but when he stands and is walking, his stomach is not fat.”

“Yes, he has a fat stomach. I was there; I saw him.”

“He says that when he stands his stomach is not fat,” she responds patiently. “It was just the way he was sitting.”

That tenacity, which McRae can now laugh about, helped Hemelrijk earn the respect of Canada’s top journalists and become the first-ever winner of a National Magazine Award (NMA) for Outstanding Achievement in 1990.

The practice of checking is straightforward: Researchers go through a story and identify every fact. They then conduct interviews with sources, examine documents and do whatever else is necessary to confirm everything in the piece. “I think fact-checking’s terribly important,” says Hemelrijk. “It drives me crazy when I read things and they are not accurate. I think, ‘That is not right. Why didn’t they take the trouble to find out?’”

But after setting the standard for rigorous fact-checking, she said goodbye to the craft 13 years ago. Since then, the magazine industry has gradually followed, jeopardizing the accuracy that gives long-form journalism its credibility. Read the rest.