Tag Archives: Houston Chronicle

How to Be a Good Writer: The Importance of Checking the Facts

As a writer, I know the importance of checking the facts before I publish an article, or prior to sending copy to a client or editor. Otherwise, I end up looking mighty foolish. I take facts seriously, and recent events have caused me to be even more careful about how far I’ll go before I stop researching a piece.

Whether I’ve got the byline or it’s ghostwritten copy, I always go the extra mile to ensure what I’m writing is factual. Writers must be diligent with the facts of a story. Our words are the meat wrapped around the bones, or facts. The creativity to shape the muscle of the story is ours – but the bones are what hold everything together. Facts make stories credible.

Digging on the Web and Why It’s Not a Good Idea

Unfortunately, many writers scrounge the web for information to back up their stories. From recent experiences, I’m telling you to never, ever blindly follow what you read. Because a piece has been published from a credible source does not mean the information is accurate.

Take my sister’s missing persons case. In 2007-2008, I turned to the web for more information and places to publish. I found Websleuths, a resource chock full of folks who help solve cases. My sister’s case was listed there because she had been considered as a Jane Doe named “Princess Blue.”

Words can’t explain how excited I was to see others talking about my sister’s unsolved missing persons case – and I wrote back with a big “thank you.” From that point on, interested people jumped into the thread, helping me to sort through the questions my sister’s case posed.

Because of that, I formulated more questions, posted more information that was purely speculation, in some matters – and in others, factual info from our childhood, impressions, and opinions I had, as well as what I believed to be true information about the case.

Armed with my information and encouraged by the Websleuth community, I went back to the lead investigator, Captain Gay Dickerson of the Katy Police Department, and began asking questions. That was 2008. In 2009, Dickerson brought the entire case file to my mother’s home, and Dickerson, my mother, and I poured over every piece of paper.

Needless to say, I found I had been lied to by the initial investigators. What does that do? It makes what I thought were facts (as posted on Websleuths and other missing persons sites) untrue.

I also did not have complete information. If you read what I posted on Websleuths as compared to what I write about today, the entire picture has changed.

And I didn’t go back and clean up what I’d written. From 2009 until now, I’ve been digesting what I know, while keeping quite a bit under my hat. We also had many questions to answer; most of those were posed during the meeting in 2009. The case needed time to unfold, and there’s still much I cannot divulge. However, at this point in time, I can clean up and restore what is the truth.

Do Your Research and Keep Digging Until You Reach the Bottom

What does this mean for writers? Don’t take what you read on the web as gospel. Even from a credible source, the information can be wrong. In my sister’s case, I worked with what I knew to be true at the time. So that makes much of what you’ll find posted about Elizabeth Ann Pfeifer outdated and wrong.

I’ve had two bloggers write about my sister’s case, one last summer and one in the past two weeks. Both used what they found on the internet. Neither contacted me, my family, witnesses, known suspects who’ve since been cleared, or the suspect, before publishing their stories. The blogger who wrote last summer interviewed Captain Dickerson, but did not accurately reflect what she said. The crux of  this story was based on things the blogger found that I had written in 2007 or so, in spite of getting the low-down and current news from the lead investigative officer. Needless to say, the story was highly inaccurate. I went behind the blogger and had the Houston Chronicle’s editorial department re-write the story. This time the editorial staff spoke with Dickerson before publishing the blog post.

Advice, Consequences and Conclusion

Check your facts, writers. Don’t rely upon reading what you see and regurgitating it. In my sister’s case, it’s more than mildly annoying since the case is far beyond what we knew even in 2009. What’s been written and exposed to thousands of web readers, if not millions, excuses one person (the primary and only suspect) while incriminating all the other people who’ve been cleared.

Check your facts, writers. Always check your facts – it takes more time, it involves more research, and sometimes it’s difficult to put together (when your sources won’t cooperate or are unreachable). Do the legwork, please. Write and publish only what you are proud of, and can stand behind. If you’re not sure, stop. Never send out copy that could be inaccurate or downright incorrect.

Writing well is not as easy as people think. Have you read internet copy that was outdated or wrong? Would you use incorrect information in your pieces? Have you written copy that you didn’t fact check? Or do you always dig deeper and find the right answer?