Job of the Day: Science Writing Fact Checker
I am a magazine fact checker. This is how I describe my job: “I verify and put a check mark above every single word in an article. If it is incorrect, I put a box around it and suggest a fix.”
It sounds boring, but it rarely is. At its finest, fact-checking is a little safari through someone else’s reporting process. I trace a reporter’s steps in writing the kinds of big glossy feature stories that I hope to write someday.
To verify the information in a story, I read papers, email assistants, talk to scientists, and sift through CDC reports. I’ve chatted with a mangrove tree specialist as he called me from rest stops on a road trip through Louisiana. I’ve woken up at 6:30 a.m. to Skype a solar energy scientist in Israel, from the bathroom of a sublet in Brooklyn so as to not wake up my roommates. I’ve toyed with putting NASA media headquarters as a contact in my phone.
from longtime Billfolder Shannon Palus’ wonderful essay about her day job, “Dispatches from a fact checker.” Shannon fact checks for Discover and Popular Science, and manages to make the job seem wildly fascinating and beautiful and TERRIFYING, all at once.
Sometimes the metaphor is all wrong, and I’m left to triage. Once I was fact checking a line that went something like this: “If you were to scythe off a human head, the carotid arteries would shoot blood five feet up.” The first source I contacted, a doctor, said, “I don’t know, I haven’t tried that.” The writer emailed me the calculation — blood pressure is 120 millimeters of mercury, equal to the pressure of 62 centimeters of water. I contacted a forensics expert, just to be sure. On paper, the pressure of that artery is enough to shoot blood five feet up. But the body is not a freshman-year physics problem. Sever a neck, and the blood vessels collapse and the nervous system shuts down.
“Immediately?” I asked the expert. He sent me a link to some videos, all with one common search term: “beheading.” Indeed, there was no shooting blood.