An interview with fact-checker Melissa Swank

Melissa Swank was the fact-checker for the award-winning Oregon Encyclopedia, a peer-reviewed reference work with over 1,000 entries by hundreds of authors. She has almost completed her master’s degree in history from Portland State University, with a specialization in Public history and Native American history and has also worked as a researcher at the Washington County History Museum and as a research assistant for the Confluence Project. In 2012, she was the first recipient of PSU’s Gordon Dodds Endowed Fellowship for the study of Pacific Northwest history.

EB: What does a fact checker do?

MS: Most simply put, a fact-checker does what I call “reverse research.” As a fact-checker, I begin with an entry submission that an author feels is complete. From that point, each statement or “fact” is checked against existing sources, primary evidence and secondary scholarship, to confirm that the information is either correct or that there are discrepancies in available information. If there is conflicting information it is noted and sent back to the author for clarification or revision.

EB: How did you become a fact checker? Background? Training? Personality?

MS: After my first year in the master’s program at Portland State University, I was selected as one of seven GTA’s (Graduate Teaching Assistants) for the following year. Having Bill Lang as one of my near and dear professors opened up the possibility of filling the GTA position through the Oregon Encyclopedia Project. When Bill approached me about the position I didn’t hesitate to accept.

EB: You are also a historian. Can you tell us a little about your interests there?

MS: As an historian my passions lie in research. I love research! It’s all the joy of being a detective with the flexibility of determining my own studies. Currently my work focuses on the Chinookan-American families in and around Pillar Rock, Washington near the mouth of the Columbia River. I am most interested in blended, bi-cultural and bi-racial families and the ways in which these families shaped the social, economic, and political life in the area during the nineteenth century.

EB: What attracted you to the study of history?

MS: I was attracted to history through an amazing high school history teacher. David Nieslanik was one of those rare and inspiring teachers that helped his students recognize how significant each and every event in history, and really how each life, impacts the world today. I wanted to be as inspiring to others as he was to us.

EB: What sorts of facts need checking?

MS: Everything! Everything from dates, directions, opinions, names, spellings, etc. needs to be fact-checked. In addition, the fact-checker insures that entries are free from plagiarism and original documents appropriate to be published in the encyclopedia.

EB: How long does it take to fact check an encyclopedia piece? Or does it vary?

MS: Since our entries vary in length and stylistic preferences, some entries are definitely quicker and easier to fact check than others. Also, over the past two years I have become more efficient in correlation with increased experience. In general, shorter entries take about an hour while essays can take up to three or four hours.

EB: What are your go-to sources for fact checking for the Oregon Encyclopedia?

MS: Ironically enough, I usually start with a Google search. From there I filter out my sources. For example, the National Park Service digitizes submissions to the National Register of Historic Places. These documents are usually prepared by trained historians who have spent much time in archives, libraries, and in the field to insure accurate information. Also, Google Books and Amazon have search functions for scholarly secondary sources which speeds up the fact check. It’s essential to evaluate the source. To have a peer-reviewed monograph published by a university press outweighs the accuracy of say a small, local newspaper. The more high-quality sources that agree with any given fact, the better I feel about the fact check.

EB: Do you fact check in your spare time? Like reading the newspaper? At movies? During elections?

MS: While I’d like to say that I do not fact check in my spare time, I truly feel that historical work in general is not only what I do, but part of who I am. So while I do not actively fact check, I have a naturally investigative and inquisitive mind that is just drawn to do such.

EB: Should publishers be doing more fact checking?

MS: I think this varies from source to source. Although published documents undergo a more thorough review than something that is self-published or published through a popular press, each and every one of us has the capability, and I might add responsibility, to check the accuracy of the content. If something seems to not line up, that’s probably because it doesn’t.

EB: What’s the hardest fact you’ve checked? Or the weirdest?

MS: Hmm. The hardest entry that I fact checked was my first one. I was absolutely clueless and had no on-the-job training really. I was teaching myself what it meant to fact check all while checking an entry that was absolutely inaccurate! I honestly thought I was being tested to see how many errors I would pick up on and how I handled the mistakes. It turns out it was simply not well-researched.

The strangest fact check by far was on Edmund Creffield and the Brides of Christ. Creffield and the Brides of Christ were an extreme charismatic sect of early twentieth century Oregon. The story involved kidnappings, nudist gatherings, and murderous activities. Because the story is so dramatic and outrageous, the fact check was very difficult. I do not believe it was ever published.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology was released by Oxford University Press in June of 2014.
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