I am a huge fan of my brand new Dish Network cable service, as it seems to be giving me infinite material for blog posts. Even as I write this, I’m watching a fascinating segment on Anderson Cooper 360 about how blog posts factor in to the race for the White House. According to the segment called The Truth About Sarah Palin, one blogger posted some joke quotes allegedly from Sarah Palin about “Satan lizards” in reference to dinosaurs. Somebody (I missed who) scooped up the quotes in the political frenzy over the Palin/McCain ticket, but failed to properly attribute the quotes or pay attention to the fact that they were completely fabricated.
The Aderson Cooper segment is attention getting all by itself; the site mentioned in the clip, FactCheck.org, is just as intriguing. This site calls both Obama and McCain on fact stretching, and watching the campaign is much more interesting with a daily reference back to FactCheck.org after listening to both sides. No matter who you plan on voting for, watching the candidates get their facts handed back to them with the editor’s red pencil treatment is quite amusing.
What does any of this have to do with freelance writing?
To me, it’s a healthy reminder that people are reaching, cross-referencing, and paying attention when writers put things into the media. Whether that’s an unknown freelancer’s blog post or the top writer at the New Yorker, the scrutiny will get around to all of us eventually.
There are people out there who are definitely interested in fact checking and calling people out when they don’t use the correct amount of discipline and due diligence. It’s been a while since a journalist or writer was called out for stretching the truth (the author of that controversial Oprah book club title A Million Little Pieces comes to mind), but it’s important to remember that people are paying attention. I could talk about a little tempest that went on round this very blog over one single line in my long-winded post on “Don’t Hire Me” traits, but that might be belaboring the obvious just a tiny little bit. But the fact remains, people do pay attention. Beautifully illustrated.
There are other issues related to that scrutiny; just today I had to warn a writer not to make a knowledge claim in print that is patently unverifiable. You can’t say a computer is “the first ever” to do something or an appliance is “the only one” with a specific function. Someone somewhere will come out of the woodwork to tell you you’re wrong. To cover your writerly rear end, I always tell my writers to attribute these claims to their source rather than stating conclusively in print that a thing is so.
“John McCain is the only candidate with an artificial forehead,” one might write, until it’s revealed that his running mate recently had a partially artificial forehead implanted so they could run as “the only party representing Americans with artificial foreheads.” It would be far better to write that somebody else made that claim. “John McCain claims his party is the only nationally recognized supporter of Americans with artificial foreheads.”
There are too many of these issues to list here, but I personally enjoy a little reminder now and again that people do read what we write, and read it carefully. The editor isn’t the only one who takes our work with an eye for mistakes. I don’t know about anyone else, but the longer I go without a dose of reality on that front, the more dangerous I get until I finally wind up getting served a nice helping of humble pie. Fortunately those servings are enough to last a while, but don’t we all wind up getting in line for seconds sooner or later?
I’m new to FactCheck.org, but thanks to Anderson Cooper this is a site I’ll be watching for the duration of the White House follies. It is my sincere hope that some blundering writer somewhere picks up my artificial foreheads quote and actually attributes it to John McCain. Freelance-Zone.com could use the extra traffic and as most of you know by now, I don’t mind a bit of controversey to keep things interesting around here.