fact-checking: frustration and tragedy

I’ve been sitting on this for a while.

I was saddened to hear of David Oliver Relin’s death in November. But last week, when I learned that his death had been from suicide, my heart just sank.

You might recognize Relin’s name from his connection to Greg Mortenson’s “Three Cups of Tea” fiasco. Relin had been Mortenson’s co-author on the book that was at first heralded for its revolutionary story, and which was later reviled when proved to be largely false in its account of Mortsenson’s efforts to build schools in rural Afghanistan and Pakistan.

(Read Jon Krakauer’s investigation in Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way.)

I’m going to go out on a very short limb and assume that Relin probably trusted his primary source, Mortenson, and that’s what got him into trouble.

There’s a tricky line writers walk when we rely on our sources, and I’ve seen my colleagues get burned.

As newsrooms and publishing houses?those that survived?have drastically downsized over the past five years, there are fewer people still trying to do mostly all of the same work. When there aren’t any fact checkers on staff to actually, you know, check the facts in every story or book that a house will run, there are going to be errors and sometimes outright lies that creep in. Sometimes it’s a smaller issue of listing an 8-year-old child as being seven years old, or saying that a business has 21 employees when there are actually 28 people working there.

Other times, you’ll see a Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor identified as an interior designer. Or worse.

I’ve learned to be careful about writing “Ms. Smith says this happened” instead of “This happened.” I’m not part of a big newsroom or publishing house, and freelancers definitely don’t have the necessary resources of time or money for thorough fact-checking. It’s not a matter of being lazy vs. being conscientious. It’s a logistical impossibility.

I just ache for Relin for getting caught up in Mortenson’s fabrications. Relin lived here in Portland. I never met him, but I wanted to. He was a journalist who cared passionately about his subjects and about making the world a better place. And look what happened to him.

Relin’s new book, Second Suns: Two Doctors and Their Amazing Quest to Restore Sight and Save Lives, is due for release in June 2013.

Posted in thoughts from the spiral, writing & publishing.

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