The Dangers of Internet Fact-Checking

The TSTC Publishing Blog posted a good article on their site recently about the importance of fact-checking. In it, they mention a nasty gaffe found in a Virginia history textbook last week.

I was curious, so I did a little more digging and found a Washington Post story related to the incident. My jaw dropped when I read it. I knew the author! I actually edited one of her books! (Although it was a children's board book, not a history textbook.)

Now, nobody is perfect, and I can not say absolutely that I would have had the error in question. But I do know that back when I first started in publishing, as an intern at Charlesbridge, the importance of checking every fact, especially in a children's book was hammered into me. I spent at least a month researching the accuracy of a book on dolphins at the library, trying to find at least two sources for every sentence. That's right-every sentence! And boy, did I learn a lot about dolphins.

Now the current state of the publishing industry has made it more difficult than ever for short-staffed editorial departments to put this kind of vigilance into fact-checking. And I can not say that I was ever as vigilant on subsequent books I edited. But now, especially now, checking your facts is more important than ever.

I wrote a post a couple weeks ago about Gap's logo debacle. When the 20-year-old apparel retailer decided to revamp their logo, there was a huge outcry on Twitter and Facebook. It forced them to do an about-face. Thanks to social media, your customers and your readers have a powerful way to get their voices heard. And if you make a mistake, they'll be quick to point it out for you and for everyone else in the world. For an author or a publisher, factual blunders can be really bad for business.

The author of the history textbook responded to her criticisms by saying that she had three sources for the dubious statement she made. Three Internet sources. But a statement's mere presence on the Internet does not make it legitimate! You've been surprised by how many authors I've had to convince of this. (One in particular liked to use and "borrow" from Wikipedia, God bless her.)

So go to the library, people! There are still books out there. And if you're publishing textbooks or children's books, at least do it for the kids.

So how do you do your fact-checking? Do you do it yourself or outsource it? What's your biggest fact-checking blunder?