Five Tips for Fact Checking Your Content!
Hopefully I have already put the fear of God in you with my first post on WHY exactly you should fact check (because reputation, reputation, reputation plus some other reasons). Next up, I am going to share a few tips on HOW to fact check as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Because, let’s face it, whether you are a journalist, a blogger, a professional in your field, a researcher or an academic (or I don’t know, a serial tweeter on Teh Twitter who does it for fun? Who are you people btw?!), there is usually exactly zero time built into your work day/editorial cycle to do this. Once upon a time, for some of us at certain publications fact checking was a given, nay a MUST, but no longer. The impetus is to type type type that content and then hit SEND and move on to the next thing.
Too bad, so sad, you still have to do it. Or you will end up plunking down $100 on business cards that include a quote from Einstein that he never said (which I came close to doing recently) or, even worse, publish some egregiously wrong or fraudulent piece of information that will make you, your brand, or your company look kind of — or extremely — silly. Don’t forget, as quickly and as easily as it is for us to pull information out of the World Wide Web Of Teh Internetz, it is just as quick and as easy for our readers to double check that information.
So, as promised, I hereby present to you, verily, my Very Thorough But Thankfully Short List of Fact Checking Tips:
Double check everything. EVERYTHING PEOPLE. Back in the old days, after typewriters but before Instagram, fact checkers at mainstream media outlets were trained to print out an article and attack it with colored pencils, underlining every single fact presented in the story for verification, no matter how absurd. For example, take this sentence: “He rolled up in his 1995 red convertible Maserati with the top down, stepped out in his fine, Italian-made boots, and entered the shareholder meeting ready to take no prisoners in one of the single largest utility buy-outs in American history.”
There are no less than 10 facts in that single sentence that would have required verification by me, the lowly but insistent fact checker. (Writers loathe fact checkers, interview subjects either adore them or think they are freaks, and fact checkers are usually convinced they are doing God’s handiwork. I have been writer, fact checker AND interview subject so no need to fact check that sweeping statement.)
Anyway, can you count 10 facts in that sentence? If yes, then you are starting to understand what I am talking about. Because at best, getting one of those facts wrong will result in an absurd correction to your otherwise awesome article: “The Maserati referred to in the piece was neither red nor convertible. It was blue. We regret the error.” At worse, it could lead to ugly claims of libel or a lawsuit should it come out that the interview subject never once said he showed up ready to stage a shareholder take-over during his interview with the writer, and the writer doesn’t have any written or audio record to back up such a statement.
Go to the source. Or else as close to the source as you can get. If I was charged with fact checking the above sentence, I would ask the writer for her interview subject’s contact information and go to him directly. Personally, I was always a fan of sending my questions by email — because paper trail, hello — but many do it by phone as well. And then you grill them.
Dear Mr. Bates,
I am fact checking an upcoming article that you are the subject of. Could you please verify the below and let me know of any updates or corrections?
1) The spelling of your name is Will Bates.
2) You believe the former CEO of Bad Company Industries was illegally profiting from insider information at Bad Company.
3) You believe the former COO of Bad Company Industries ran a prostitution ring out of the offices of Bad Company’s subsidiary, Really Bad Company Industries.
4) You own a blue, 1995 Maserati that you drove to the Jan. 1 share holders meeting in Las Vegas. It was not a convertible. You were wearing Italian-made boots that day.
5) You initially had no intention of staging a share holder takeover when you arrived at the share holders meeting.
6) Bad Company Industries has the largest market share in the carbon-powered wind energy sector in the United States as of Q2.
Alright, I know this doesn’t apply to most of what is being published these days. Usually we are repackaging stuff we found while trolling the Internet. Reports, stuff like that. Okay, then get as close as you can to the original source. Check an annual report or two (always available on a publicly-traded company’s website). Find news articles that mention Will Bates’ blue Maserati, or court filings detailing a lawsuit against the former CEO for ripping off the company. My point being, don’t just parrot what the Internet tells you, or what another blog publishes. Is there a legitimate source that you can point to, meaning the kind of source you wouldn’t be embarrassed to reference in a research paper in college?
Figure out what counts as a legitimate source in your world. When I was writing a report on child mortality rates for UNICEF based on numbers published by UNICEF, well then those numbers trumped the numbers put out by any other source, obviously. At the UN, UN-approved numbers trumped numbers published by journalists. The CIA World Fact Book and the Economist Intelligence Unit were both trusted sources that were often cited at the UN.
My point being, you need to figure out what your trusted sources are in your particular industry. And if two different sources provide two conflicting pieces of information, then you need to decide which source outweighs the other. Write it down and send it out to all your writers and editors or content providers or whatever. And if you need a place to start … well go to Wikipedia. Stop rolling your eyes people, I am talking about the citations that support the articles you find on Wikipedia. Many of them are legit and will lead you to other potential sources as well, including news articles by mainstream news sources.
If you can’t find a source, then delete! Take, for example, all these randomly wonderful and inspiring quotes flying around the Internet everyday … how many of these can you source to the original book, text, interview, whatever? If you can’t find the original interview or writing where Nelson Mandela famously proclaimed “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure,” it’s because he never said it nor wrote it.
So do yourself a favor and when in doubt, delete!
When it sounds too good to be true, and you can’t find an independent source, delete!
Nothing is too small or insignificant to double check. Is that the correct spelling of the name of that company you reference in your blog post? Google it! Is that the correct title of your source? Are you sure she isn’t Regional Director of Operations and not Associate Director of Operations? Google it! Can you really say that this is the first time someone in your industry has put out a report on the push back against whistleblowers? GOOGLE IT! (Oh hell! It is actually the THIRD such report put out by a player in your industry. Who knew?) Was Abraham Lincoln really pro-gay marriage? Google it!
Just. Google. It. Please.
Some free, handy sites for fact checking (that aren’t Google or Wikipedia):
- the CIA World Factbook
- UNDP’s Human Development Indicators (ranks countries by various means such as GDP, gender equality, or access to water)
- www.politifact.com (independent site that fact checks political news coverage in the U.S.)
- https://www.sec.gov/edgar/searchedgar/companysearch.html (Form 10K, the audited annual report, is probably what you are looking for when researching a company that trades in the U.S.; don’t forget that every publicly-traded company in the world also has an annual report to shareholders posted on its website.)
- If you are trying to hunt down information about privately-held companies and their owners, Forbes does a lot of great research that, having worked there in the past, I would absolutely vouch for.
- www.xe.com is an online currency converter; www.oanda.com/currency/historical-rates/ for historical conversions (remember currency exchange rates are constantly fluctuating!)
- www.census.gov is HIGHLY addictive, so be warned. Go in with your question firmly in mind or an hour later you will find yourself comparing Internet access rates by income between New York City and L.A.
- The UN’s Cartographic Section for all of your politically-correct geographical fact checking needs.
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UPDATE: Check out my FREE online course, “How to Fact Check a Tweet in 20 Minutes or Less!”