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.

Also this:

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.

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