Andrea Bartz

In 2017, Paltrow announced it would develop a magazine with Condé Nast (the company behind Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Vogue). But Paltrow split with the media giant after two issues, in part because she refused to play ball with fact-checkers, per the New York Times Magazine: “Goop wanted Goop magazine…to allow the Goop family of doctors and healers to go unchallenged in their recommendations via the kinds of Q. and A.s published, and that just didn’t pass Condé Nast standards.”
(The article notes that Paltrow brought on a lawyer to vet claims and did plan to hire a staff fact-checker for their quarterly magazine, produced in-house.) Goop’s communications director told me in an email that the magazine “is on hold due to reallocating resources to our Netflix show, but we did hire a fact-checker for the magazine. We also have a fact-checking process for the site, led by our science and research team.”
Fact-checkers, who for decades have worked behind the scenes as non-bylined journalists, have been having a rare moment in the limelight. In November 2019, Ronan Farrow told the New York Times, “I’ll go to my grave ranting about how important fact-checkers are.” In February, Trump had quoted Jesse Watters, who declared fact-checkers “Fake News.” There are about five times as many fact-checking-focused reporting projects (think: Politifact, Snopes, Factcheck.org, etc.) today as there were in 2014, according to a survey from the Duke Reporters’ Lab. There was even a Broadway show about fact-checkers, starring Daniel Radcliffe.
These days, we need fact-checkers more than ever — but not just for the reason you think. Yes, it’s great we count on researchers to call out politicians and diligently confirm bombshell accusations. But as print magazines (and their on-staff fact-checkers) become a dying breed, we’re not nearly alarmed enough about researchers’ diminishing influence over lifestyle content — the tips and how-to’s that tell us how to live.

Why I bow down to fact-checkers

Our understanding of fact-checkers and our appreciation of their work has grown too narrow. Drop “fact-checker” into Google News, and the results all cluster into the same word cloud: Trump’s latest rally or interview, impeachment hearings, town halls and debates, and those pesky, misleading Facebook ads. And certainly, I’m glad we have researchers sorting the truth from the lies. There’s a good reason everyone is talking about fact checkers — at recent count, Trump has made over 16,000 false or misleading statements thus far as President.
But politics isn’t the only realm where fact-checkers are the one dwindling force between us and a post-truth world: it’s happening in the wellness industry too, a sector where women and girls are avid consumers.
In 2020, it can feel like lying is the norm: Witness the sad state of political spin, the swell of grifters, of charlatans and snake-oil salesmen, pricey “experts” shilling New Age treatments and odd offerings to the Church of Wellness. We’re in an era when anyone can say almost anything (hi, influencers and “lifestyle experts”) and many people will believe them. The stuff we used to get almost exclusively from magazines — up-to-date wellness advice, research and information aimed at teens, pregnant women, parents, and more — has lost a huge chunk of its vetting, and we, Absorbers of the Advice Aimed at Us, will suffer the consequences.
I should know — I’m a former women’s magazine editor who held positions at several national publications, most of which are no longer print and some of which have shuttered entirely. Others live on in their digital forms, publishing dozens of articles a day, often with a skeleton crew. And while many are still producing excellent content, as a general rule, there is no guarantee the stories we click on — the workouts, diet advice, health tips, and more — have seen a fact-checker’s gaze before they hit the sites and accompanying social media profiles.

Why my novel’s heroine is a fact-checker

Now, in a vacuum left by those defunct print magazines, influencers with questionable — or entirely absent — credentials tell their millions of followers which (FDA-unregulated) supplements to take or whether to get a flu shot. “Clean eating” tips irresponsibly bandied about can serve as triggers for folks who’ve suffered from eating disorders. On Reddit, laypersons weigh in on homeopathy to treat Zika, how to increase platelet counts during chemo, and whether vaccines are safe. Twitter chatter around holistic health, including alternative therapies, shot up 372% from 2016 to 2019.
Here’s how fact-checking typically works at a magazine: When a writer files their story, they also submit “back-up” — an annotated manuscript showing where every fact and quote came from, as well as interview transcripts and original sources. The editor looks this over, then passes it on to an assigned fact-checker, who essentially reverse-reports the entire story. They contact every source cited in the piece and verify their quotes. They read through every study mentioned and confirm with the researcher that the writer’s interpretation is correct. They ensure that no misspelled proper nouns have sneaked in, meticulously cross-checking every letter in a name and giving it a diagonal slash. These people are heroes, and I bow down.
I can’t count the number of times a fact-checker has saved my butt — noticing in the nick of time that an argument didn’t hold up or a line needed to be reworded. The best checkers are allies, suggesting fixes and zooming out to make each article as truthful and helpful as possible. At a digital outlet with research staff and fact-checkers, the process follows a similar trajectory. Unfortunately, too often digital publications lack the time or resources to go through these steps. They finish a story, hit publish, and hope for the best.
And, to be clear, the websites for some print magazines can’t fact-check stories the way their paper arms can: While a monthly newsstand copy contains a few dozen articles, a monthly’s website might publish 50+ pieces in a single day. Non-verified information has always been a click away; the problem is that now, it feels like all we’ve got.
This thorough, time-intensive, thoughtful approach is why I made the heroine of my debut mystery, The Lost Night, a magazine fact-checker. My decision to make my protagonist a fact-checker was mostly tactical: I needed an amateur sleuth with the skills of a true gumshoe.

Who’s left most adrift in a sea of marketing

Fact-checkers don’t give up until they’ve brought the truth to light, and that’s precisely why the decline of lifestyle magazines hurts my heart. No major print magazine aimed at teenage girls is still in publication (with a team of fact-checkers reviewing all the mental and sexual health advice therein). I have no idea where teenage girls are learning about birth control these days, but they won’t have a special sealed section in an issue of YM (or was it Teen?) the same way I did. They might actually believe there’s something wrong with their vulvas if they don’t smell like Goop’s $75, sold-out bergamot- and damask-rose-scented candle, called “This Smells Like My Vagina.” In 2018, Goop was sued for false advertising over claims that their “vaginal jade egg” prevented uterine prolapse. The company paid out $145,000. They changed their marketing around the product but continued to sell it.
I’m not saying Goop makes false claims, and I think it’s great that they hired fact-checkers to work on their team. What I am saying is that Goop in all its wackiness exists in an ecosystem where there are fewer and fewer available outlets offering sound information about wellness that’s been rigorously researched before it hits the public, and that can be a dangerous environment for consumers.
Are magazines perfect? Of course not — when I was on staff, though I did my best to maintain editorial integrity, sometimes I got the message that (ahem) it would be really great if I could include a major advertiser’s product in a gear roundup, for example. Not all lifestyle magazines are created equal in their purveyance of accuracy (and some print magazines lack fact-checkers altogether).
In the end, fact-checkers make excellent amateur detectives because they don’t stop until reality wins — not agendas or interpretations, but irrefutable facts. As we move toward a world where anyone can tell the public how to be healthier, happier, fitter, or safer, fact-checkers aren’t just necessary for a functional democracy — we need them for a functional population, period.