Compliments are far less pervasive than criticism is in the world of online journalism, so I’m always happy when someone has something positive to say. A fighter I profiled told me she finally read what I wrote about her months ago, and said, “It’s actually really well-written. Not that I didn’t think you are good at writing, but you’re the only one that’s actually accurate…”
I was gleaming for a bit, but then reminded her that many MMA bloggers are working for mere pennies (if that), and so it’s hard to expect everyone to double and triple-check all of their information. (Not that every underpaid MMA writer is incapable of this, but just that some don’t bother.) And then there’s the time crunch. I, too, have fallen victim to wanting to be first or even just wanting to get a certain amount of work done within a given timeframe, instead of waiting for someone who may not even respond.
Nevertheless, I started thinking about fact-checking. Has it become a lost art? Let’s step outside of the blogosphere and look into the world of professional media (print and online). The truth is that the gold standard of media is for publications to have their own fact-checkers, who will work their way through a list of references provided with an article. I submit an annotated copy of each article with footnotes, as well as a clean copy without them. I also print out copies of each study I cite (not the abstract, but the full study), and full names, titles, phone numbers and e-mail addresses for each source I interviewed, so that they may double-check quotes.
When I’m doing health or science writing, the rules are sometimes even more stringent. In some cases, studies must not only be performed on humans and with a large sample size, they must also be recently published in peer-reviewed journals. This level of scrutiny isn’t applicable to all types of writing, but knowing how to check facts is a useful skill. And since I’ve done some freelance fact-checking, I thought I’d share some tips which I use both to check other people’s work, and to fact-check my own writing if there’s nobody else in that position.
1. Prepare your sources for fact-checking ahead of time. If you are interviewing someone for your article or post, make sure to ask them if you can check back if any questions arise. Sometimes, there’s someone else who will do that kind of work for them, but often they will tell you to contact them directly. Ask them what medium works better for them. I’ve had people respond instantly via e-mail even after ignoring phone calls for days.
2. Look everything up. If you interview someone and they mention a story published on YahooSports in March, look for that story. If it was actually published in April, call them to make sure that you have the right story. This is also true for studies–someone may say there were multiple studies they mentioned in an article, for example, but you can only find one. Follow up with them. Look up stats, too. If there are discrepancies, you may need to mention this in your story–or at least follow up with your source.
3. Make sure your sources are credible. An anonymous post in a forum would, of course, hold far less weight than an article in a legitimate publication. That’s not perfect, either–many rumors are repeated in the
echo chamber blogosphere–but it’s definitely a start.
4. If you find discrepancies, look into them. Professional fact-checkers often contact writers to let them know there are discrepancies between their article copy and their supporting documents. If you’re fact-checking your own work, you will quickly realize whether you made an error. If an error was from a source and you can’t get ahold of them, you can always work the new figure into your copy, with citation. (Example: “According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, …” Then work the supporting quotes from your source into the copy.
5. Make sure you have supporting proof for every statement given as fact. When you’re reading through the piece, imagine someone annoying saying, “Oh yeah? Prove it!” to everything written. Would you be able to? How? Even if you are not including links or footnotes throughout the piece, having them on hand if someone questions you is always useful.
6. Check spelling, grammar, tense and cases. Proofreading isn’t exactly fact-checking, but why not kill two birds with one stone? And who knows? While checking subject/verb agreement, you may come across something relevant. Like “studies indicates.” Then your job is to find out whether it’s just one study or there are several, and make appropriate corrections. (Again, get permission from sources before changing direct quotes.)
7. Go back and check everything. Quoting a famous writer? Go back and check that the quote is accurate. Listing a year of an event? Double-check the year. Writing an MMA article? Go back and check the fighters’ records. Writing about botany? Check those Latin names. Make sure, again, that your sources are credible. Someone’s facebook page may have a quote misattributed, for example.
8. Get both sides. While you can generally get away with publishing non-factual information when quoting someone directly, it’s good form to try to get a comment from the other side–and could lead to a much better story, if you’re willing to do a bit of reporting. And Wait for several hours, if at all possible, giving people time to respond. If I am worried that someone did not get back to me because they simply did not have the time, I often write that they “did not immediately respond to request for comment” rather than “did not respond to request for comment.” This can always be updated with a response later, should you get one.
9. Don’t misrepresent anything. Make sure our headlines, quotations, etc. are not misleading or do not highlight things out of context… even if you could get more hits that way.
10. Be accountable. Admit to any mistakes you make, and correct errors as you find them.
What are your fact-checking tips?