Why fact-checking matters
It sounds easy, doesn't it, observing what is going on, asking questions, uncovering facts and then telling the public what we have discovered. But we are dealing with volatile raw material. Handled carelessly, the facts we uncover, research and present have the power to cause misunderstandings, damage and could, potentially, change the course of history. That's why it's essential that we apply robust fact-checking to all our journalism. This is the process that distinguishes facts from rumour and gossip, spin from substance, and often reveals what some would prefer to keep hidden. The following is a checklist that all journalists might want to follow if they are to play an effective role in informing the public debate.
Are you preventing thorough fact-checking?
The first obstacle to accurate fact-checking could be you. Do you have a vested interest in the topic, as opposed to a genuine journalistic interest? Are you investigating the situation because you have a desired outcome in mind? Are you trying to make the facts fit a headline you have already prepared in your head? If so, you may have compromised your objectivity which will make it difficult to produce a piece of journalism that is strictly factual. Of course, there will always be causes close to your heart that matter to you as an individual, but you must not let this influence your work.
The two reliable sources rule
Most media organisations have a rule that all facts should be confirmed by two reliable sources. Often the wires will be counted as one source. The journalist then has to find another source that is willing to go on record to verify the information. Ideally, you should be able to attribute the information found to that named source. Sometimes, because of legal reasons, privacy issues or the likelihood of danger, it is not advisable to name sources. In such cases you need to be sure that your source is trustworthy. You will need to be able to convince your editor that the source is legitimate and the information the source is sharing is correct.
Don't rely on the news wires, they could be wrong
Some media organisations simply copy and paste wires stories. That's fine; media organisations pay a lot of money for wires feeds. However, the wires will sometimes get it wrong and issue retractions. You don't want to have to apologise to your audience for having blindly copied and pasted unverified information. If you do, you may have let your audience down and you will have reduced the standing of your media organisation, and yourself, in the minds of those who had previously turned to you for verified and reliable information.
Who can a journalist trust?
Well, the truth is, nobody. A journalist must never accept what they are told without scrutinising the information. Journalists should take a sceptical view of every piece of information shared with them. They should not blindly trust contacts – even if those contacts have proved reliable in the past. This could lead to a cosy relationship that results in you dropping your guard, compromising your standards and publishing or broadcasting incomplete or unreliable information.
Breaking news, attribution and qualification
There will be times when you break the two-sources rule. There may be breaking news on the wires and, although you are unable to confirm the information, you have evidence that it has happened and want to get the news out quickly. This will be a senior editorial call. In those cases you will add the words "according to the wires" or something similar. You also may want to qualify the information by saying "we have not yet been able to confirm the reports" or similar words. There are other exceptions. When I worked on my first newspaper we would do the daily calls to the police, fire and ambulance services. They would read the list of incidents that had taken place since the last call. We would then seek out witnesses, neighbours etc before publishing. When I moved to local radio we had hourly news deadlines. We would call the emergency services from the newsroom and broadcast with attribution and qualification, such as ‘"police are reporting that", or "according to police." However, for big stories we would always seek confirmation either by sending a reporter to the scene or calling victims or those affected.
Stakeholder influences and sources
A journalist is bombarded with facts and so-called facts. These come from a wide variety of sources; stakeholders, contacts, the journalist's own research and digging. Whatever the source, whether it is a previously reliable contact, a trusted friend, or a figure in authority, the same rigour needs to be applied to all fact-checking.
Did your editor or a senior editorial figure push this story? If so, why? What was their reason? Don't presume that a story is legitimate just because it has been handed down to you to follow up.
Did the information come from a news release? If so, what is it that the publisher wants to promote or hide? Your job is to reflect all sides of the story.
Why did the news agency pick up on that particular point? What's the reason for putting it out? Did they just regurgitate a press release? You need to uncover all relevant angles to the story.
Did you get this information directly from a contact? Are they reliable? Are you sure that you are not being used? Could you be too close to them? Have you worked with this contact before? Did you deal with them with integrity? Could they be expecting favours? If so, what did you do to lead them to believe that you could be manipulated?
Sometimes you, the journalist, can be the biggest obstacle to the delivery of reliable information. Be honest about your interests, weaknesses, favouritisms - you may think you are beyond reproach, but if you do have a vested interest it will show through to the audience. Your job is to deliver facts to your audience so they can make informed choices. If you deliver lies or distorted facts, you are adding to the confusion rather than clarifying issues. That is not journalism. Accuracy in our fact-checking is at the heart of all we do.
Being manipulated and not realising it is the biggest danger to fact-checking.
This post first appeared on Media Helping Media (MHM) and is published on IJNet with permission. It originally appeared on IJNet on August 2, 2012. The author has recently updated the post, and the revised version appears above.
MHM is a training information site that provides free media resources for journalists working in transition states, post-conflict countries and areas where freedom of expression and media freedom is under threat.
David Brewer is a journalist and media strategy consultant who set up and runs [Media Helping Media]. He delivers media strategy training and consultancy services worldwide. His business details are at Media Ideas International Ltd. You can follow @helpingmedia on Twitter.
Image CC-licensed, thanks to Apreche on Flickr.