Fact checking is exactly what it sounds like: the checking of facts.
The practice of fact checking in media generally is associated with North American consumer magazines.
Around a century ago, publications like Time and The New Yorker realized they’d be well served by publishing stories readers felt they could trust. Doing so involved making sure the information they were publishing was accurate: everything from a subject’s eye color to a business’s financial figures.
Magazine editorial staff members known as fact checkers would look over every story, checking every fact.
Newspapers, given their more frequent schedule, didn’t have time for this kind of undertaking, and instead relied on a peer-review type of pass around among senior editors. (Books, given their larger size, are usually considered too big of an undertaking to fact check, though it’s not unheard of.)
Unfortunately, fact checking in the media has fallen out of favor in recent years, as publications have cut costs to meet declining revenue.
If you’re writing corporate copy for a company’s website, someone will probably sign off on your work, and if you’re writing a blog post, an editor with knowledge of the topic you’re writing about hopefully will give your piece a read with accuracy in mind.
But no matter who you’re writing for, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to rely on having someone go over your work in minute detail.
Much of the onus in making sure your story is correct will be on you.
Fact checking your own work is traditionally frowned upon, but given no other option, it’s better to check your own work than not have it checked at all. So it’s important to know how to do it right.
A note: You might hear a lot about another kind of fact checking in the media—the kind that involves accountability and sussing out purposeful misinformation, or “fake news.” There’s definitely a relation between that and what we’ll be talking about here, but we’ll be focusing on traditional editorial fact checking.
What is a fact?
Anything that can be proven true is a fact. The color of someone’s eyes is a fact. So is their height and their birthdate. The spelling of the name of a person, place, brand, product, or business is a fact. Dates are facts. So are dollar amounts and distances. In other words—virtually everything.
Why is fact checking important?
Whatever you’re writing and whomever you’re writing for, in most cases your goal is to impart information to the reader. The importance of that information will vary: you might be offering investment advice, tips on starting a business, or recipe instructions.
Whatever you’re writing about, the information you’re providing has the potential to have some effect on your reader’s life.
If your recipe for cookies doesn’t work, you might only cause them some embarrassment at an office party. If your investment advice is off, however, you could be having a profound negative effect—something that could potentially get you and your publication sued.
Whatever the degree of error severity, if a reader has a bad experience due to the information a publication or website gave them, they’re probably not going to trust that publication or website ever again, and that can lose the publication or site readers and money, and, over time, potentially put it out of business.
At the same time, if a publication or site you write for begins to notice the information in your copy is frequently false, they’ll probably stop hiring you, which can have a negative effect on your livelihood.
At the end of day, being correct is the job you’ve chosen and the job you’re being paid to do. Why be wrong when, with just a little extra work, you can be right?
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What to fact check
A full editorial fact check is a complex process of gathering up source material and source contact information. It involves pencils and highlighters and phone calls. That’s probably more than you need or want to do in most cases, so we’ll focus on how to do a “light check.”
To start, ask yourself two questions:
- What information am I providing to the reader that would be bad to get wrong?
- What information am I presenting that would make me look sloppy if I got it wrong?
At the very least, be sure you check the following:
- Names. Including people’s names (and titles), place names, company names, and brand names.
- Numbers. Including dates, measurements, formulas, analytics, statistics, and prices.
- Links. If you’re including links in an online story, make sure they work and direct the reader to the correct page.
- Instructions. If you’re listing steps in a process, make sure you have them in the right order and that the information you’re providing is correct. If you tell someone to click a button on a web page in Step 3 and that button isn’t there, your reader is going to be frustrated.
- Consistency. Be sure that what you have written is consistent throughout your piece and that timeframes and sequence of events are correct.
- Quotations. If you’re quoting something from a written source, like a press release, report, or article, be sure to quote it exactly as written. If you’re attributing a well-known quote to someone, make sure they actually said it.
Bonus tips on checking names
Logos don’t always make the correct spelling of a company or brand name evident.
Take 7-Eleven, for example. Looking at the company’s logo doesn’t tell you that it takes a hyphen between the numbers. Check to see if a brand name has an unusual spelling, is intercapped, or contains any accents or punctuation.
URLs are not company/brand names
They’re the address you type into a search bar to go to a company’s/brand’s website.
Just because a company’s URL is rentacar.com, doesn’t mean the company’s name is rentacar.com. It could be Rent a Car, Rent-a-Car, or Ed’s Car Rental. Look on the site for a company name or logo.
As mentioned above, a logo still may not tell you the whole story, so, even better, look to the bottom of the page for a copyright notice. You’ll usually find the legal name of the company there. You can also look on an About, FAQ, or Contact page, or just surf around the site until you find the company name in use.
Don’t trust metadata
Don’t trust any kind of metadata when checking the proper spelling or a company name. Often, this is typed in by a programmer and, given its function, isn’t necessarily styled with editorial accuracy in mind.
Some words that we use in generic ways are actually trademarked brand names and need to be capitalized. Band-Aid, for example, is a brand of adhesive bandage, even though pretty much everyone calls adhesive bandages Band-Aids.
Dumpster was a brand name for a large garbage container until fairly recently, when the owner of the trademark let it lapse. Now, it’s officially OK to spell it lowercased.
Aspirin is a trademark in Canada, and thus uppercased, by not in the U.S.
Whac-a-Mole is the proper name of a carnival game, but is often used as an expression that suggests futility.
If you come across a word that doesn’t feel like a generic word, check online, look in a dictionary, or check a trademark database, like the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database or the Canadian Trademarks Database.
How to fact check an article
1. Primary vs. secondary sources
If you want to know when my birthday is, the best source to check with is me (or maybe some forms of government ID). I’m the primary source—no one can answer the question better than I can. If you ask my best friend when my birthday is, you’re asking a secondary source. He might know, but he’s not the authority I am.
In that same vein, newspapers and magazines aren’t primary sources. If you want to know who won the Oscar for best actor last night, the name of a newly released car, or how much profit a company made last quarter, a newspaper, magazine, or online news outlet isn’t the primary source.
Hopefully their information is right—maybe it was even fact checked—but you don’t know for sure, because you’re looking at a secondary source that could have its facts wrong.
If you can, check the official Academy Awards website, a web site or release from the car manufacturer, or the company’s own audited financial reports.
If you’re using statistics from a reputable statistics firm, it’s unlikely you’re going to double check its math or re-interview a group of people it polled. But be sure to credit and/or link to the information you’re using so anyone who wants to dig deeper can.
If you’ve interviewed a source who’s an expert on a given topic, you can usually trust what they tell you as factual, but use common sense.
You should be able to trust a small-business owner to tell you what year they founded their company. But if you ask the CFO of a major corporation about a specific financial from three years ago on the phone and they sound like they’re reciting it off the top of their head, you might want to double check.
Also ask yourself if there’s any reason your sources might be lying to you (hopefully not a common occurrence). If you ask me what year I was born and you have good reason to believe I might have shaved a few years off, look to some additional sources as backup.
If you’re using a website as a source, make sure it’s reputable, trustworthy, and without an agenda. This might take some digging to figure out.
Look at how long it’s been in operation, whether there are any reports or online comments about its trustworthiness or lack thereof, and who owns and operates it. This is a good rule of thumb for any resource you’re getting information from.
At the end of the day, you may not always be able to get all of your information from a primary source. Use your best judgment when vetting sources, and cross-reference with other sources if you can.
Make sure your sources are up to date. A study on online shopping habits from 12 years ago probably won’t provide you with much useful insight into the online shopping habits of today (unless you’re writing a comparison story).
If you find a study you like that seems reputable but is out of date, search for a more recent version. There’s probably one out there.
4. Contact sources to find more info
Don’t feel you need to rely only on what information you can dig up online.
If you’re quoting a study and don’t understand its methodology or feel that anything about the study is unclear or lacking in some way, don’t be afraid to look up the contact information for the company publishing it and ask questions.
Reporting, even if it’s just for a blog post, usually requires some legwork.
Happy fact checking
Learning to be a good fact checker takes a bit of work, but if you’ve got a keen and curious mind and a sharp eye, and you’re willing to put in the work, it’s a skill you can easily master and add to your arsenal of editorial skills.
As mentioned above, a light check may be all you need in most cases. But if you find yourself writing an in-depth feature story, or if you just want to know more about the fact-checking process, here are a couple of good additional sources.
- The Fact Checker’s Bible, by Sarah Harrison Smith (Anchor)
- The Chicago Guide to Fact Checking, by Brooke Borel (University of Chicago Press)