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“Just the facts, Ma’am.”

March 12, 2012

“Just the facts, Ma’am.” That’s what I wanted to say when I visited Nancy Tafoya at her lovely home in Mesa Antero, but in the moment I forgot to be witty.

I was there to discuss her career in fact-checking. Given our daily inundation with bad information, it’s hard to believe there are people out there checking facts.

But first we find Nancy doing sound effects for Sesame Street and the Electric Company during the days of Morgan Freeman and Jim Henson before the Muppets were international stars.

When the Cookie Monster was chomping cookies, Nancy was in front of a live microphone crushing potato chips.

She was a production assistant at Children’s Television Workshop when Reader’s Digest hired her as a fact checker. It was more stable work, so she took it.

Nancy moved up to Senior Editor, and while she did some writing and choosing of articles, she was always in fact-checking. After a couple of decades, she moved on to Guideposts, perhaps the largest circulation of religious magazines, although there was less demand for fact-checking there.

As dozen years ago, Nancy and Al moved here, and shortly thereafter she started Rocky Mountain Editorial Inc. She has five employees spread around the country. One in Tennessee she’s never met face-to-face, and these days that’s the case with many clients, too.

I was heartened by this news—there are enough publishers and editors who care about accuracy to keep Nancy and others busy. In fact, Nancy said, there’s always been a range care taken by magazines. Half of Reader’s Digest contained articles published elsewhere, and they routinely found errors in articles already published in national magazines.

Reader’s Digest has always been careful, along with such publications as the New Yorker and Vanity Fair.

But what does Nancy actually do? The work ranges from a few pieces to entire issues, from barely edited to full layouts ready to go. After more than 30 years, Nancy has a lot of solid intuition, but she has a basic approach.

First, she will read the piece a couple of times to identify what needs checking. If something is presented as fact, it should be factual, verifiable. Sometimes, she will suggest re-writes to better state a fact vs. personal observation.

She pretends she doesn’t know anything so as not to presume on her own knowledge, which could be wrong.

The February 2011 Reader’s Digest had an article by Gary Taubes questioning the long-standing nutritional wisdom about the food pyramid, which we’ve known since childhood was fact because it appeared on the backs of cereal boxes.

In fact, it’s more like a consensus recommendation than a fact, but in any case, Nancy enjoyed checking Taubes’ information and seeing the status quo challenged.

The work is done systematically. The spelling of names is verified. Named or quoted persons are contacted. These days, much is done through email and sharing of files electronically.

Most other facts are checked online, too. We used to see Nancy more in the library for her research, but there are good, authoritative sources of information online, such as NIH and Mayo Clinic for medical information. You just have to find it.

Some guiding questions stay in the back of her mind: If we get this wrong, who would it affect? Who would it hurt? The facts do matter.

For example: A recent article had instructions saying if you park facing downhill to turn your wheels to the right. But this is not always so. It should say turn your wheels to the “curb,” which may or may not be to the right.

Of course things are different than when she started her career. Reader’s Digest had 25 people employed in editorial research—two librarians plus assistants, and 20 fact-checkers. Now there’s just a few, who farm out work to experts like Nancy.

Before the Internet, they mailed a lot of letters or sent telegrams asking people to call. They did more work in libraries, more talking with people.

I liked this picture: Imagine little Nancy in her 20s sitting at a table with four large men, New York union guys, and proceeding politely and demurely to check the sometimes disagreeable facts contained in an article about the union bullying a small shop.

She got what she needed, perhaps catching the men off guard. They weren’t happy with the result, but oh well. Facts are facts.

I thought of having Nancy fact-check this column first, but I’m up against my deadline. Close enough. I’m sure she would have caught my quote of Sgt. Joe Friday at the beginning and informed me that, in fact, it’s not exactly what he said.

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