“Fact-checking” (is)—a stage in the editorial process where someone attempts independent confirmation of every “fact” in an author’s manuscript before its publication— Source: Adventures in Fact-checking: Are You Completely Bald? by Richard Blow and Ari Posner, New Republic, September 26, 1988.
How do you define a fact?
- Something that has actual existence
- A truth, or something known to be true
- Accurately answers the who, what, when, where and how – key questions usually asked by journalists
What might facts include, and what should one fact-check?
The following list represents a selection of the most common mistakes that occur when due diligence is not employed by the fact-checker.
- Names (Place and People)
- Titles (Mr. Prime Minister)
- Historical Events
- References to Time and Weather
- Superlatives (My Party Had The Biggest Turnout)
- Physical Descriptions
The Fact Checker’s Bible: A Guide to Getting It Right, by Sarah Harrison Smith should have a place on your reference shelf.
In the old days of print, fact-checking involved the collaborative efforts of the writer/reporter, an editor and a fact-checker; today’s journalist is expected to be all of the above.
Journalists are keenly aware that in the age of the Internet, and the 24-hour news cycle, the thing that sells, and that will have readers returning, is credibility; the onus of responsibility rests with the writer, and he or she is expected to produce stories with facts that are accurate, supported by documentary evidence and with sources of the highest authority.
While fact-checking is not a formulaic exercise, best practices encourage use of the same strategies employed when conducting news or background research; and having a plan is an imperative.
As you gather the facts, data and sources that support the premise of your story, keep an organized and thorough record of all your research – photographs, transcripts, videos, tweets, tapes, books, articles from your clip search, email addresses, phoners, web contact. etc.; you will save considerable time when you begin to fact-check your story, and there’s always the chance that you may need to turn over your files to legal counsel. (At TIME magazine, reporters’ files (called ‘carbons’) are kept for 13 months post publication.)
What types of sources should one use when fact-checking one’s reporting?
- Make every effort to use primary sources for fact-checking. If your source brings with it particular bias, and he or she is a crucial element in the telling of this story, then it’s incumbent on you to make your readers aware of this. Reporters covering the war in Syria are confronted daily with the reality that they will be getting information from sources with clear partisan agenda.
Types of Primary Sources (Original Documents)
Primary sources provide first hand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation. They are created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the event or conditions being documented. (Yale University)
- YouTube videos
- DNA evidence
- Minutes of a community board meeting
- Documentary film footage
- Official records (birth certificates, marriage licenses)
- Works of Art, Drama
- Government Documents
A Selection of Primary Reference Sources:
- Office of the Mayor (NYC) Find the full text of Mayor De Blasios’s speeches, announcements, press conferences…
- Checkbook NYC is a solid primary source for following the City’s day-to-day spending by way of an online transparency tool. New Yorkers and others now have access to the current financial condition of the City; one can now find the names of the City’s prime vendors, contract amounts and amount spent by the city for contracted work on taxpayer-funded projects.
- The Public Papers of the President. Published by the Federal Register, these papers are the verbatim record of the papers, statements, press conferences, and speeches of the Presidents of the United States. Started in 1957. Online editions go back to President George H. W. Bush.
- The Quinnipiac University Poll is a solid polling resource for presidential, state and local party politics.
- The C.I.A. World Factbook is your portal to basic information about foreign countries – politics and government, population and social statistics, land, religious and economic data. Published by the U.S. government; it’s a solid primary source and a must have on any virtual library shelf.
- The Bureau of Labor Statistics should be your first source when looking for national economic data – employment and earnings, productivity, consumer price index, unemployment rate.
- Lexis Nexis Academic Broadcast Transcripts
- A Streetcar Named Desire Full tex of the Tennessee Williams Classic
Secondary Sources provide interpretation and analysis of primary sources; e.g. reviews of music, art, theatrical productions or literature; political commentary, editorials, encyclopedias; directories, a la Leadership Directories, LexisNexis database searches for magazine or newspaper articles about events and people, are additional types of secondary sources. Be sure that your sources are credible, well-respected.
A Selection of Secondary Sources
- New York City Economic Development Corporation produces monthly economic snapshots, and Borough Overviews, snapshots of the Industries that are driving the economy of New York City. Looking for story ideas? Check out the blog Blog
- 2016 State of NYC’s Housing & Neighborhoods A product of Furman Center at NYU, this is an excellent secondary source. Annual research and analysis of the face of housing in the neighborhoods of NYC. Loaded with valuable (and verifiable) facts and data.
- The Chronicle of Higher Education. Premium web product, the title speaks for itself. Critical discussions of issues under discussion in the national square; valuable data on race, sexual assault, executive compensation, faculty salaries, and much more. Excellent story idea resource.
- If you are looking for recent figures on the City’s Spending on Overtime, or if health is your beat and you’re trying to find data on the impact of the Affordable Care Act on the number of Uninsured Patients Treated at the City’s Public Hospitals, then the Independent Budget Office ought to be the a source you immediately check out. This is a City of New York Publicly-funded agency that provides reviews of the NYC’s budget and issues reports, economic forecasts and analyses of public policy issues. Have a look at the recent releases.
- The 2017 Mayor’s Management Report provides an annual report of our Mayor’s stewardship of the resources of the City; loaded with solid data.
- FactCheck.org monitors the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases. Courtesy of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania.
- The Columbia Gazetteer is a geographic reference tool which should populate every reference shelf. When you are trying to verify the spelling of cities and towns and oceans and villages, get comfortable with the gazetteer; added bonus is found in the good descriptions of each location – economy, principal crops…
Recognizing Fake News
Fake News Alert Simple extension that shows an alert when you visit a site known for spreading fake news. (chrome extension)
The B.S. Detector Easily recognizes fake and satirical news sites, as well as other questionable news sources, and alerts users by adding a warning label to the top of questionable sites as well as link warnings on Facebook and Twitter. (chrome extension)
RealDonaldContext (chrome extension) It’s an understatement to acknowledge that President Donald J. Trump, who uses Twitter as his main vehicle for communicating with the world, is not always accurate with his tweets. This is the product of the Washington Post’s Fix team who have created the extension to add more context or corrections to things that President Trump tweets.
This simple app can be loaded to your Chrome toolbar; it adds fact-check summaries to selected posts by President-elect Donald Trump. Users will need to click a post in President Trump’s Twitter feed to see any fact-check information from the Washington Post, which appears as a gray text box beneath the tweet.
Verifying Information Found in Social Media Networks
We can’t close out our time together without addressing the increasing use of social media by globally established publishers, journalists, activists of all stripes and John and Jane Q. Witness who share breaking and other news.
As journalists, you must apply the same degree of skepticism when contemplating a decision to use UGC (user generated content) to amplify or confirm a fact in your story; performing due diligence – by confirming its originality, identifying the source, that is, who made it, determining the date the video was created, and ascertaining where the video was taken – are all requisite best practices.
Contacting the original owner and uploader of this video becomes an imperative and the goal; it’s necessary to find its origin in order to get permission of use the video.
Much has been written about the pitfalls that journalists must avoid when fact-checking social media content. I recommend The Verification Handbook and in particular chapter 3, Verifying User-Generated Content.
“It’s much better to look for documentary evidence than it is to accept some whispered tale that somebody has put in your ear.” – Brooks Jackson, director, Factcheck.org
Errors, Errors, Errors!!!
Published errors take away from the credibility of the journalist, and tarnishes the character and reputation of the publisher; being willing to admit and correct mistakes will only improve a publication’s stature.
Publishers today provide error report forms on their websites, and have encouraged readers to identify and submit corrections.
Wall Street Journal Corrections & Amplifications