It is a journalist’s job to report with fairness and accuracy, separating what’s true from what isn’t, and contextualizing facts and opinions appropriately. To achieve that, editorial fact-checking — the verification process of sources and information included in a story — is an essential process for all reporters and editors.
“In the best case scenario, a person other than the writer/editor/producer will do the fact-check,” says Brooke Borel, journalist and author of “The Chicago Guide to Fact-Checking.” “In that case, the fact-checker will go through every fact in the story and confirm it against the original sourcing materials, including, in some cases, re-interviewing sources,” she explains, adding how, at times, additional original reporting may also be required.
While this is what actually happens at magazines with a dedicated fact-checking department, like The New Yorker, it is definitely not the norm for most media organizations that simply do not have enough money, staff or time to specifically invest in the discipline.
Borel says, “In cases where there isn't a separate fact-checker, it's important for journalists to have a process in place to help them double-check their own work.”
Tight deadlines, shrinking budgets and the lack of specialized resources shouldn’t compromise ethical standards or the quality of the news, but they do make things more challenging. Here are a few easy-to-use tips from experts to help freelancers and small teams implement a more effective fact-checking strategy before publishing or broadcasting the work for which they are responsible and will be held accountable.
Grab a pen
Bill Adair is the Knight Professor of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University and the founder of PolitiFact, the Pulitzer-prize winning website that researches the accuracy of claims by politicians (known as “political fact-checking”). He suggests a simple but thorough process that he learned from his St. Petersburg Times colleague, the late Terry Tomalin.
“I print every story and then go through it sentence by sentence with a red pen,” he says. “I read each sentence aloud and ask myself if I’m sure it is true.” If there’s any doubt, he checks it with an independent source.
Once everything has been confirmed, he puts a check mark at the end of the sentence. He also circles each number and name and puts a check mark once he’s verified them. “Be especially careful with names and numbers,” he advises. “Those are the things that I’ve most often gotten wrong.”
If working on a sensitive story — an investigation, perhaps — he will write the name of the source on the paper next to the information they provided in order to easily check it later. “I also did this when I wrote a book,” he says.
When it comes to public figures, he describes PolitiFact’s process for verifying information they shared: “[We] went first to the public officials we were checking and asked them for supporting materials to back up their claim. We felt that they should be able to back up the claims they made with sources.”
As for science, dig into the literature to understand where any claim sits in the broader conversation. “Is there consensus on a topic? Is a research paper confirming that consensus, or is it an outlier?” Borel asks. “What do other scientists in the field — those who weren't directly involved in a particular study — have to say?”
Prioritize your facts
Ideally, journalists will verify every single fact in a story, including the ones sources use to express opinions or the ones that fall inside a quote, Brooke Borel says. If you don’t have time for that, you may need to prioritize. Verify high-stakes facts first, she recommends: “This is information that, if you have it wrong, could open you to a lawsuit or harm someone.”
For example, if you’re covering a highly litigious source, if you have a story involving crime or you’re making claims that could damage someone’s reputation, you want to be completely sure you’re being accurate and have all the appropriate sourcing to back up your words, she explains. “If you're writing about something that could influence peoples' health or well-being – say, a new pharmaceutical drug, diet or medical device — you want to make sure you aren't overselling it,” says Borel.
Once you’ve got this covered, move on to those basic facts that are easy to check and easy to mess up, she says. These include spelling of names and numbers, but also locations, basic geography and dates.
Vet your sourcing
Consider whether you vetted your sources thoroughly and if you’re missing any key voice or information, Borel suggests. “Read the story from the perspective of your biggest critic and plug any holes in logic/sourcing as appropriate,” she says.
If you need to fact-check claims from an anonymous source, verify everything you can from on-the-record ones. Borel lists some helpful questions: “[Does] the anonymous source have documents or other proof that support their claims? Were there other people involved in a particular event [or] conversation and can you access them to confirm what actually happened or what everyone said? Did you interview whoever the claims are about and get their response?”
Professor Adair adds that you should always try to get a source to go on the record, and use anonymity only in specific cases.
Implementing these editorial fact-checking tips and methods into your regular writing process will not only strengthen your pieces, it will also reduce the risk of error and ensure more fair and accurate reporting.