Fictional Non-Fiction: Fact-Checking & The Failure of The Publishing Industry

Author: Keely Herring, Johns Hopkins University

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I am an avid fan of non-fiction books. The stories themselves tell us about the unusual or the unknown in our world, and though that on its own is interesting, what I find most intriguing about them is the reality of the stories being told. And I’m not alone; non-fiction is one of the most popular genres in terms of book sales. The Association of American Publishers reported that since 2013, “adult non-fiction [has been] the fastest growing” category compared to adult fiction, juvenile fiction, and religion. Amazon’s report on author earnings in 2014 showed non-fiction authors’ earnings as on par with those of mystery, thriller and suspense novels, and second only to romance genre novels. Non-fiction books are popular, a lot of people read them, and they have credibility; I never once thought to question the facts and accounts of a single one I have read.

Maybe that was my mistake. Earlier this fall, I read an article entitled “Book Publishing, Not Fact-Checking” by Kate Newman, in which she details the failures of fact checking in the non-fiction book publishing industry. Despite what many believe, non-fiction books are inadequately fact-checked, if they are even verified at all. Newman´s main point is that publishing companies have little incentive to implement in-depth fact checking because doing so “slows content production.” Newman details several examples of serious lapses in accuracy, including Rigoberta Menchu’s I, Rigoberta Menchu, and Somaly Mam’s The Road of Lost Innocence: The True Story of a Cambodian Heroine. Both these accounts detail what is supposed to be the author’s experience overcoming hardship and adversity in their respective environments. For Menchu, it was severe human rights violations against indigenous Guatemalans, and for Mam it was a sex-trafficking ring in Cambodia. Journalists, however, have seriously discredited both accounts.

Some argued that Menchu and Mam’s “autobiographies,” despite having accounts of certain events that may not have happened to them specifically, still shed light on important and real issues. They personally may not have experienced everything they detailed, but they were in close proximity to people with those experiences. This raises an interesting point, and though I do think those enduring human rights violations, or any sort of injustice, should use any platform they can to draw attention to the issue, it should not come at the price of discrediting the integrity of the non-fiction genre. Though it may be our duty, especially as curious readers, to question everything we read or hear, it is completely counterproductive for publishing companies to release these books under the definitive label “non-fiction.” This perpetuates a cycle of untruth; magazine fact checkers “typically treat reference to a fact in a published book as confirmation of fact,” according to Newman. If the source is not fact-checked, then everything proceeding it will be inaccurate.

In political coverage, many websites dedicated to fact checking have emerged. One notable example is Politifact.com, which, according to its mission statement aims to “bring you the truth in politics.” Their staff takes objective statements made in the media or by politicians, analyzes their validity, then gives them a ranking ranging anywhere from “True” to “Pants on Fire.” Politifact is just one of many political fact-checking sites. For news and media, calling out politicians and popular culture figures for objectively stating inaccurate information attracts attention, and thus more readership and/or viewership. Though the publishing industry may want to, and intend to, publish true facts, they do not allocate the resources necessary to vet the author´s claims. They need incentive to make sure what the author is telling them is true, and not place so much trust in the authors raw submissions. The current approach of most publishing companies now puts complete trust in the credibility and honesty of the author.

Fact checking is something we as college students are very familiar with. For essays, policy memos, and exams, for example, we are required to check and double-check our work, as well as cite all the sources. Not only out of fear of plagiarizing, but in most cases, expect the professor to be an authority on the given subject, and therefore need to present 100% factually correct data to produce a quality final product. There are exceptions to complete accuracy in the academic world too, however. According to an article in the Economist about academic scientists, “professional pressure, competition and ambition push scientists to publish more quickly than would be wise” and results in many errors in “scientific papers being published.” As one source in the article states “ there is no cost to getting things wrong”, only a “cost (for) not getting them published.”

Quality and integrity being sacrificed for money is not an original theme. However, there is something particularly disturbing about the leniency of publishing industries, and in some cases, of academics seeking publication. Those reading non-fiction books want to feed their brain. They are curious to learn about their world, whether it be history, culture, or a stranger´s personal experience. If non-fiction readers absorb and later cite information from books they believed to be true, the chain of inaccuracy and untruth continues. It starts with the publishing companies—that is where verification should begin, not after the fact. Unfortunately, we live in a world where the phrase “true fact” is not redundant.

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