[Every story in Alpinist is thoroughly fact-checked. “Fact checking” has become a more common term in today’s digital headlines, as accusations of “fake news” and “alternative facts” abound in our society. In this feature, Alpinist Associate Editor Paula Wright interviews Alpinist Research Editor Anders Ax about the strategy and nuance of exhaustive fact-checking and how he handles the most difficult questions that may not have definitive answers.–Ed.]
I first met Assistant Research Editor Anders Ax when I interviewed for a job at Alpinist in February 2016. Winter that year was cold and dry, and thin patches of hard-packed snow settled around the small town of Jeffersonville, Vermont. I trudged through the parking lot to meet my potential boss, Katie Ives, who was dressed all in black and wearing a stern shade of lipstick. Next to her stood a man in bulky red ski attire. We sat down to breakfast, and Ax took off his hat to reveal a large crown of curly hair. Over pancakes, Ax outlined the main responsibilities of his job: namely, fact checking, which he described as “reverse-engineering a puzzle.” As he talked, the crown of hair seemed to nod in affirmation.
The goal of the fact checker is to find, isolate and verify the objective facts of a story, and, at the same time, to ensure the character of truth in an essay overall. As we talked, Ax described working on a story for Alpinist in which four climbers who had put up a new route together all remembered the story of the climb differently: who climbed what pitch on which day, who had placed which bolts where. Ax reviewed interviews the author had recorded with the different characters and checked for further data in record books and online, noting where the stories converged and diverged. Later at the office, he showed me the result of his work: on what was a 3,500-word story, Ax had written an additional 10,500 words of notes, none of which would ever pass by a reader’s eyes beyond the office walls. The paper-clipped pages had the heft of a book in my hands, and I wondered what I might have gotten myself into.
Anders Ax lives at the base of the Wasatch Range. He still teaches snowboarding lessons and is the Assistant Research Editor at Alpinist, though his hair is now cropped short. We corresponded by email and over the phone for this interview in early December.
When you sit down to begin fact checking a new essay or article, how do you begin? Where do you start, and what is the rest of the process like?
My process first begins by reading a story several times and then “mapping” the story. “Mapping” is when I go line by line and I add a footnote to each sentence and then break that sentence down into as many parts as I need to answer each specific question for that sentence. Take for example this sentence: “According to Tibetan lore, Rigdzin Godemchen, a fifteenth-century religious figure, was the first to find the secret door and key to enter Kanchenjunga and extract holy scriptures from its frozen peaks.”
The questions I will ask will include:
A. Is the spelling of Rigdzin Godemchen accurate?
B. Was Rigdzin a fifteenth-century religious figure?
C. Was Rigdzin Godemchen associated with Tibetan lore?
D. In Tibetan lore was Rigdzin Dogemchen described to have found a secret door and key to enter Kangchenjunga?
E. Was Rigdzin Dogemchen described to have extracted holy scriptures from the peak?
F. Can I confirm that Rigdzin Dogemche was first to extract holy scriptures from Kangchenjunga?
G. Can I confirm the spelling of Kangchenjunga?
Once all the questions are “mapped,” I end up with hundreds of questions. On a four-and-a-half-thousand word feature I can easily have well over 150 footnotes, and I’ve had a few over 200 footnotes. I may have surpassed 1,000 questions for certain stories, but I’m honestly not sure. Sometimes not knowing the quantity of what I have left to fact-check lets me keep my head straight.
As I’m reading line-by-line I’m also thinking about sources I’m going to use and whom to contact. I then start at the top of the story with Question 1, which is always the spelling of the author’s name. Then I work down question by question, trying to answer as much as I can. On the initial read-through, I’ll spend between five to ten minutes on any given question and if I can’t find anything I’ll flag it as “incomplete” and I’ll return to it later. Sometimes it’s best for me to move away from questions after about ten minutes on the initial read. This way I spread out my resources rather than focus on one question for an indeterminate amount of time. Chances are I’ll actually answer a previously flagged question when I’m looking for something entirely different, and that’s always a welcome surprise.
After I’ve completed the initial round of fact-checking, I’ll take a break to let my brain process all that information. Then I’ll return to the story, fact-check the “incomplete” questions and start writing queries to contacts. I’ll also send questions to the author so they can follow up on information I was unable to find or they can respond to contradictory information. Once every footnote has been answered to the best of my ability, I then send my fact-checking report to the editors. Even then the story is not finished. The editors will go through my copy, request answers to new questions I didn’t ask, maybe suggest other sources to follow-up with, or ask that I double or triple-check sensitive information. Beyond these follow-up questions, there will be a document shared between all the editors and fact-checkers of the final, most esoteric or unanswered questions. I, and others, go through these when we’re approaching deadline.
What are some of the most common errors or inaccuracies you find in climbing writing?
The most common areas I find challenges and inaccuracies are transliterations (the romanized spellings of non-English words), foreign language translations and geology.
Transliterations don’t necessarily refer to mountain names. One of my more memorable transliterations was in regards to this sentence, “Local Tibetans and Nashi people worship 6324-meter Damyon as a sacred ‘Mountain of the Goddess.'” I found a source titled An Ethnohistorical Dictionary of China, which stated “The Naxi people-also known as the Naxhi, Nashee, Lukhi, Luhsi, Luxi, Moso, Moso Man, Nachri, Nahsi, Nashi, Na-khi, Nakhi, Nar, Nasi….” Which to use? Which was most appropriate for where we were in history? “Damyon” also isn’t a mountain that receives a lot of attention, is that the most accurate spelling and are there other variants?
Translations can also be difficult, not necessarily just for me. Once I asked for help confirming the translations in this sentence, “In our Sherpa language, the peak is known as Khang Tagri. Khang signifies ‘mountain’ and Tari means ‘axe.'” Does Khang mean “mountain” and Tari mean “axe” and can I confirm our writer’s inference that Tagri relates to Tari? The source of mine replied: “Your simple question of why Khang Tangri is spelled with a ‘g’ if the Sherpa word for axe is tari, has opened a can of worms.”
Finally, geology is kind of the bane of my existence. I have sunk hours, if not days, into researching geological information. One of the first fact-checking projects I had was working on an essay set in Yosemite, and I spent the better part of half a day researching Yosemite granite, the variety of percentages of mica, feldspar and quartz that determine what kind of granite, the science behind the nature of how the Valley granite formed a monolith, batholith…. I try to correspond with geology professors and United States Geological Survey researchers as early as possible. Sometimes there is no easy answer, like whether or not Mt. Johnson in the Ruth Gorge is comprised of “metamorphic granite”? The answer I received: “Mt Johnson is part of the Ruth Pluton. The rock is medium to coarse-grained hypidiomorphic-granular biotite-muscovite granite.” I laughed when I read that. I wasn’t sure if it even answered my question. Turns out, the granite wasn’t metamorphic, so I suggested the author change “metamorphic” to, simply, “black.”
When I do find contradictory information and what appear to be errors, I keep in mind that the writer might actually have correct information. The writer may possess the first edition of a book, or have the copy of an old journal from an expedition that was never printed. So I request a writer’s input on every change that I recommend, no matter how small or large that suggested change is.
How has your work as a research editor and fact checker expanded your understanding of climbing and mountaineering history or culture?
Because I started climbing with little knowledge of the historical or social context, I’ve been consistently learning about its history and challenging my understanding of the question “Why do people climb?” From the exposure I get to other peoples’ stories and perspectives, it’s apparent that there’s a web of different human conditions and experiences that is always brought back to climbing.
It’s also become apparent to me that climbing and mountaineering have definitely had an immense cultural impact on the world. Knowing this, how can we ensure that cliffs, peaks and surrounding lands are protected in honorable and sustainable ways for local communities and future generations?
Fact checking has become a more common term in today’s digital headlines, as accusations of “fake news” and “alternative facts” abound in our society. While in some ways, the Internet has made fact checking easier, it’s also a powerful tool for spreading misinformation. Has your work as a fact checker changed the way you read the news?
Fact checking has trained me to be more scrutinizing of sources in the news, and I think a lot more about whether or not sources are independent or if there is a vested interest in some way. The fact-checking process has made me realize that purely objective, hardline news can be difficult to achieve and remain engaging to read. I find myself reading several publications for more of a narrative, and I’ll also do a bit of research on a story if I’m interested. My knowledge and experience are constructed out of only one path, so if I take a bit more time to build off other sources and learn what others outside my usual frames for news know. As a result, I’m both a little more conscious and empathetic with what I’m reading about.
What are some of your favorite sources or records for climbing and mountaineering history that our readers might not know about?
A few sources that I return to almost every issue are Pilgrims of the Vertical by Joseph E. Taylor III and Fallen Giants by Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver. Both books approach mountaineering and climbing through a series of lenses, historical, social and cultural and they expound climbing’s narrative and impact. The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf is one of the more recent sources that stood out to me over the last year because it was an engaging read and it told a fascinating tale of a figure of history I’d never been exposed to before. Older publications of the Alpine Journal and The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London I find to be interesting as well since they chronicle exploration and expeditions as far back as the 1830s.
Another area I’ll look into for inspiration are climbing forums. If I’m having a difficult time finding a source for tricky information, usually a story of a local climber or even photos of old climbing gear, I’ll visit climbing forums for stories and anecdotes to lay some groundwork and then contact forum posters directly to build a narrative for more information.