A Matter of Fact: The Craft of Fact-Checking
“Tell me about the craft of fact-checking.” I am fantasizing that Charlie Rose is asking me this on his show—I’m on PBS! I am on last, of course, and Charlie seems bored. I have just shared the greenroom with a popular U.S. history writer (who became uneasy when I told him what I do) and the Canadian foreign minister (who bored me into another world).
“Assume nothing,” I say to Charlie, brazenly stealing the line from a bumper sticker I remember from the Bush administration.
You can’t assume that only 105 of the 144 Englishmen who set sail for the New World made it to Jamestown alive on May 14, 1607, just because 105 stumbled off the three boats to settle there. (How many of them died after that is another story.) But a historian specializing in American history made just that assumption in a popular book on the subject, and one of the authors I have fact-checked scooped it right up. It was too good not to mention—the iconic suffering on the trans-Atlantic crossing! Actually, only one person died. The remaining thirty-eight were sailors who got back on board the three boats and sailed them back to England, as planned. You have to be careful about how even that one death is described because the person had survived the Atlantic crossing itself—he died during the lengthy period after the English reached the Caribbean, wandering northward and exploring the Chesapeake Bay and the James River for many, many days (they founded Jamestown almost forty miles upstream).
Talking about rivers, how did the Hudson River get its name? It’s aptly named after Henry Hudson, the first European who explored it. But one book I worked on stated that “Hudson explored the river and named it after himself.” That sounded so good that it was picked up in other social studies books we published. But Hudson named it the Mauritius, after Morris, Prince of Nassau, his Dutch patron. That name didn’t stick. It was called the North River in English and the equivalent in Dutch. It took about 200 years for “Hudson River” to become the generally accepted name, another hundred to become the only one. (The native Lenape had their own name for it, of course: Muhheakantuck, “the river that flows both ways,” an appropriate name for a sunken river basin where water does flow backwards in its lower reaches depending on the tides.)
Yes, beware of anything. Dates get reversed when typed. The Asian long-horned beetle is estimated to have entered the US in 1986, not 1968. Beware of untrustworthy sources. A well-known doctored quote in a social studies book I checked had Moshe Dyan gloating about how the Israelis had taken their land from the Arabs. (That was from a book for the Texas schools.) He actually had said to Israeli students that the history and, therefore, future, of the two peoples were intertwined, so they had to learn to get along. Amazing what you can do by snipping a word here and a phrase there. Beware of hazy geography! The Bahamas are not in the Caribbean Sea, but in the Atlantic Ocean. So, more obviously, is Bermuda.
I have traced several errors to texts by solid authors from good publishers. But I have not found Wikipedia to be the source of many errors. One exception was a text that described the Compromise of 1879 as a piece of legislation, not the backroom deal that it was. That’s important because it clinched the presidency for Rutherford B. Hayes in a contested election and pretty much ended Reconstruction. It came from Wikipedia, which actually got it right in the main text of two articles but got it wrong on a bulleted list. (Yes, I can often track down the source of untruths, even when I don’t have the author’s backup, because they are also often uncomfortably close to the phrasing of the original.)
Textbook writers are hardworking people who have to adhere to state standards and publishers’ expectations and deadlines. Then they have to present the material in ways that will be useful to teachers and appeal to students. The writers can’t possibly know everything. The political system of the Marshall Islands was described in the same book as the most in-depth history of slavery in Canada that I have ever seen. (Yep, they had slaves—up to 800 at the height of slavery up north.) Some personal economics (always the easiest chapters to fact-check) was thrown in for good measure. The state department of education in Georgia got more than they wanted. And it was correct.
Anything is liable to happen. An author had an ancient Greek stealing a cabbage from a market. Did the ancient Greeks have cabbages? Yes. Do beetles in the Atacama Desert in Chile deploy their wings in the morning to catch moisture from the breezes off the Atlantic Ocean? No, that would be the Pacific Ocean.
Are you still awake, Mr. Rose?
Joseph C. McCloskey © 2011
Answers to older trivia questions/to be moved
Trivia question for 9-11-11:
What does a road sign mean if it says “Caution! Sleeping Policemen Ahead”?
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A. Sleeping policemen are speed bumps, so you should slow down! This example comes from The Wayfinding Handbook, by David Gibson, by way of National Geographic, December 2009. The sign is from Jamaica, but the term is described as a Britishism, so you may encounter it elsewhere, too. Other terms for a speed bump are speed hump, road hump, speed breaker, judder bar (New Zealand) and ramp (Ireland). It’s interesting how many terms speakers of a language can come up with for something. The NG issue cited above has 20 examples of public signs from around the world, all from the Gibson book, which presumably contains lots more!
Trivia question posted 9-4-11:
Who was the star of the U.S. sitcom Bachelor Father?
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A. The star of the American TV series Bachelor Father was John Forsythe (1918-2010). He played a wealthy Beverly Hills lawyer named Bentley Gregg. Most episodes involved his efforts to raise his niece Kelly, played by Noreen Corcoran. She often tried to fix him up with a wife. Some of these women were early appearances of actors who became well-known, such as Mary Tyler Moore and Barbara Eden. Another well-remembered character was Peter Tong, Gregg’s servant, played by actor Sammee Tong.
Noreen Corcoran and John Forsythe in a publicity photo for Bachelor Father
Bachelor Father aired from 1957 to 1962. It was successful but had trouble finding a home — it was the only TV program to play on all three major American TV broadcast networks, beginning with CBS. MVA’s Revue Studios, the show’s producers, cranked out 157 episodes, all of which aired. There was also an unrelated British TV sitcom called Bachelor Father around 1970-71.
Trivia question posted 8-28-11:
Where did the worst tornado ever recorded occur?
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A. In Bangladesh, in Manikganj District, in 1989. Some 1,300 people died. Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated places on earth—142,000,000 people in an area the size of Arkansas. Building construction there is also poor. Bangladesh is also one of the two places on Earth that get the most violent tornadic activity (the American Midwest is number one).
The Netherlands actually gets more tornadoes per square mile than any other country (about 22 per year in all), but they are almost always very small. England is runner-up (about 33 per year, but fewer than the Netherlands per square mile). In 2010, you may recall, a tornado touched down in London, damaging many structures; a tornado in Birmingham a few years earlier may have been stronger.
Trivia question posted 8-21-11:
A. Edinburgh, of course, is in Scotland. But where in the world is Edinburgh of the Seven Seas?
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Edinburgh of the Seven Seas (seen above) is on Tristan da Cunha (usually pronounced TRIS-tan duh KOO-nuh, sometimes -nyuh). That’s an island in the South Atlantic, between Africa and South America. It’s a British colony of about 264 people. The photo shows that even in what is often considered the most isolated inhabited place on earth people like to live close to other people. (Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific is also sometimes considered for the honor.)