Research Session #7: Fact-Checking
Posted on December 1, 2014
Some stories are fact-checked, not all.
You are on your own to validate everything in your story. Copy editors may check easily verifiable facts, but you are on your own.
Always consider these basic questions to remind you about the accuracy, source, authority, timeliness, clarity and attribution in your reporting from Barbara Oliver, former Director of Research at The New York Times:
- Sez who? – What or who is your source?
- Who are these guys? – What is the source’s authority, what do they do?
- How is the sausage made? – What were variables that could affect any conclusions that you make?
What do I fact-check?
- proper names
- place names
- references to time, distance, date, season
- physical descriptions
- references to the sex of anyone described (names can be deceiving)
- any arguments or narrative that depends on fact
(from The Fact Checker’s Bible: A Guide to Getting it Right by Sarah Harrison Smith)
Most Common Errors:
• numbers and statistics; especially check billions or millions
• names of people, titles, locations
• historical facts
• be careful of one-source stories; you should be building profiles from the outside in
• possible bias
Watch superlatives like “only,” “first,” “most,” “just,” and “never.”
• Census data story identified the spot in NYC with the greatest concentration of unmarried women, and a drive to the neighborhood confirmed the location was a convent!
• Census data story identified the spot in NYS with the most divorces per capita, which upon further investigation turned out to be a prison!
Read it out loud!! Spell check can get you: New York Times Correction: April 10, 2012 An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the Ethiopian dish doro wot as door wot. Additionally, the article referred incorrectly to awaze tibs as aware ties.
Be skeptical. This is a good article about how to handle and fact check a difficult subject like rape: Do you fact-check a campus rape survivor? from FASFE, August 26, 2014
Where do I check?
• Check facts using primary sources when possible. Using secondary sources like articles can perpetuate errors.
• Keep meticulous track of your research, including methods and sources. This will save you time when you are checking over your work. You might need to turn your research over to the fact-checker (if you work for a magazine), editor or in a worst-case scenario, the general counsel.
• Use your university library, your news organization, or your public library electronic and print resources.
• Here is a list of some reference sources for reporting.
Accuracy checklist from Craig Silverman at Poynter’s Regret the Error
Steve Buttry’s Expanded Version of Craig Silverman’s Accuracy Checklist
Accuracy Checklist for Journalists, Reynolds Center for Business Journalism
Accuracy tips from E.W. Scripps School of Journalism
Accuracy tip sheet from Knight Citizen News Network
Politics related fact-checking guides:
Place Names: A good atlas like the Columbia Gazetteer of the World will confirm proper geographical names.
Good research and fact checking on the Serial Podcast: In the first season the Serial team investigates the 1999 murder case of Hae Min Lee.
Banksy Arrest Hoax, The Independent, Oct. 21, 2014
Fact Checking Is Dead: Mainstream Media Goes Nuts Repeating Debunked Claims By The Fake ‘Inventor Of Email’, from the is-this-really-so-hard? dept, techdirt Sept 9, 2014
Fran Drescher’s New Husband Likes to Claim He Invented Email, Mashable Sept 8, 2014
Podcast: A Matter of Fact. Producer Jakob Lewis in search of the facts behind fact-checking. Pursuit Magazine, Sept 17, 2014.
Example: Walter Cronkite
July 2009 New York Times article about Walter Cronkite’s career contained seven errors. Facts such as the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed and when Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon were wrong. How did this happen? It happened because the reporter and several editors assumed, instead of double-checking these facts.
Example: Moon Landing
The New York Times reporter John Noble Wilford wrote the New York Times front-page article about Apollo 11 and the first landing on the moon in 1969. Upon the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, Wilford wrote a new article describing the moon landing and his experience reporting on it. Astronomer John Delaney wrote back that Wilford’s details did not match the actual scientific details of the moon landing. Wilford recalled the moon landing incorrectly.