Checking facts? Try these 5 steps

By · Wednesday, May 27th, 2020

not teaching,

Fact checking has everyone’s attention again. And for good reason. So this is a good time to share a trusted method that will draw your attention to how many facts can appear in a story. It is a step-by-step fact-checking exercise that reporters have routinely followed in the past. We think it’s something that shouldn’t go out of style.

If you’re a news consumer, not a journalist, scan this exercise anyway. It is a bit long, yes, but then so is the process for ensuring credible information, not misinformation, is published and shared.

Step One. Ask a fellow reporter to have a story fact-checked. Agree to have that person fact-check a story of yours. Use a story of substantial length that has four to six sources. Agree with your partner that neither of you will be defensive as questions arise.

Step Two. Go through the story and underline or highlight every fact. There are many of them. Names, addresses, ages, job titles, statistics, dates, reports, songs, books, buildings, organizations, locations, and on and on. Assume nothing is “known.” You must be dogged in your checking. Listen to song lyrics or movie lines; anything and everything that can be checked must be checked. Any information that comes from a source must be checked with that source. But when you do that, don’t read facts back to the source; have the source give them to you again. For example, have the source, not you, spell a name. If it is not clear to you where a fact in a story comes from, then you will have to ask the reporter to tell you, and then you can proceed from there.

A special note: As the fact checker, you must be clear with sources about what you are doing and why you are doing it. You and your partner in this exercise should agree at the outset that when questions arise with sources, the reporter will get in touch with them to discuss points in question.

Step Three. You must check assertions of fact. It’s not enough that a source reiterates what he or she told a reporter. Whatever a source asserts, you must check — any statement presented as “fact.” If a source says something happened or someone did something, then the fact checker looks for ways to independently confirm it. When you can, go to primary sources. If the source of a report or a study is someone who summarized it for the reporter, then attempt to check the actual report or the study.

Step Four. Check quotes and paraphrases. You should avoid reading the quotes directly to sources because that could lead some of them to wish they’d said something differently. They might want to negotiate revisions, which you can’t do. Instead, identify the facts and assertions within the quotes, and check those. You could say something like, “You are quoted as saying this happened and that happened. Is that right? You say this about this person. You identify this as your favorite moment, and that it happened on this date. You said this was a difficult business to deal with, and you said this was why.” Make detailed notes about any challenges. These will have to be checked against the reporter’s notes. A source could get a little upset on occasion, so be prepared to politely reiterate what you’re doing and that you can’t speak for the reporter. Your message should be: “This is a process to uncover problems or issues, so it’s working, which is good.”

Step Five. Prepare a report that documents what appear to be clear errors found, potential errors found, and useful new facts uncovered. Give the reporter your documentation for every fact checked. Save everything because it might help the reporter if further checking is required. Agree on an orderly and easy-to-read system because your fact-checking exercise is likely to generate quite a bit of material.

This five-step process is described as an exercise, and it is. But it also is used “for real” when facts might be questioned. There is no shame in being challenged. Fact-checking is just the right thing to do.

These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

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