by Chip Berlet
(This is the memo I used for training staff and interns at Political Research Associates)
“If you are interviewing your mother,
remember to ask her to spell her name”
--old journalism saying--
Accuracy is the holy grail of journalism—constantly searched for, and although elusive, the goal is never to be abandoned. Eventually, all writers make mistakes. The very thought of a mistake reaching print or broadcast should make us feel queasy. If you don’t lose sleep worrying about an error getting published or aired, you are in the wrong craft.
Like all crafts, there are tools and techniques that have become standard and accepted. Fact checking is no exception. But as librarian Barbara P. Semonche observes, “Effective fact checking is more about attitude than techniques and tools.”
The first level is to ensure that the list of Who, What, Where, When, and Why is checked for accuracy in the details; and then rechecked for proper spelling of names and places, etc. Accurate reproduction of quotations from printed sources is essential.
Names should be checked by going to a primary source such as a publication by the individual or group or their website. If this cannot be located, a phone call or e-mail directly to the person or group is needed.
All quotations from printed sources should be fact-checked by having two people review them. The quoted material should be highlighted in color or underlined. One person should read out loud from the quoted material while the other is reading silently from the original.
Here is how On The Issues handles fact-checking requirements with authors:
For your manuscript to be processed, you MUST include a complete contact list for the fact-checker, specifying the names, titles, locations and telephone numbers of everyone you interview. Include any special instructions to the fact-checker at that time. We will preserve anonymity if the occasional source requires it, but we must still fact-check.
After your article has been accepted, you will be asked to send your research materials -- publications, news clips, specialized journals, etc. -- to the magazine. Any such clips should be marked with the date and name of publication, and they should be keyed to the respective section of the article.
Fact-checking protects you and OTI. These files are required by our magazine's libel lawyer, and can be returned to you after fact-checking is completed, if you wish.
It saves you time (fewer follow-up phone calls) and speeds fact-checking if you include a duplicate copy of your manuscript, marked in colored pen, keying facts in the article to your background source material.
We regret that story payments cannot be made until fact-checking material is received by OTI.
Ten Caveats of Fact Checking
[Note: there may be more.]
By Barbara P. Semonche
Facts are hard to define and harder to recognize. Experience and training help.
Fact checking, while admirable, is not a growth industry. For the most part it is a "do-it-yourself" activity. Still, don't neglect help from other qualified folks.
Fact checking skills require continuous training. Take time to learn the unique attributes of print and online sources, new and old ones.
Effective fact checking is more about attitude than techniques and tools. A willingness to be surprised is an indication of an open mind.
When you are certain that you are absolutely right about a fact, check further.
Errors are easy to make and difficult to correct. They rarely look different from verifiable facts. Further, in the high-speed digital age, they have the half life of a radioactive isotope. They are nearly impossible to purge from electronic resources. Database quality suffers.
Avoid making beta errors correcting alpha mistakes.
No book, journal, database, newspaper, magazine, web site, reference book is without error. The same is true for so-called experts and even veteran fact checkers. A copy editor's best approach is a polite skepticism and eternal vigilance.
In fact checking, there is rarely enough time, money or expertise to do the perfect job. While true, this observation is no excuse for not making a good-faith effort in pursuing accuracy.
In journalism, many people care about accuracy: copy editors, reporters, photographers, graphic artists, news librarians, and readers. Work together to get the job done well.
At Political Research Associates we have some issues that are unusual but hardly unique. When we write about people and groups, we often place them in a particular category based on ideology and methodology. There are some categories that require special attention.
Suggestions that a person or group promotes or engages in:
- Criminal activity
- Sexual misconduct
- Unethical or immoral activity
- A breach of fiduciary trust
- Overt racism or antisemitism (or other bigotry)
- Neofascist or neonazi activity
- Communist activity
- Terrorist activity
This list is in part shaped by legal decisions relating to the laws of defamation (libel and slander). There are some allegations where the courts have tended to shift the balance toward the person complaining about being defamed unless the evidence is clear and overwhelmingly convincing.
Whenever any of the above allegations are made in a PRA publication, two people other than the author must check them for accuracy, and the underlying documentation must be collected and filed.
Here are the basic ways to document such allegations:
- The person or group has publicly embraced one of the above ideologies or methodologies in some public and documentable manner.
- Record of a criminal or civil conviction that has not been overturned.
- Documents authored or produced by the person or group that three people at PRA agree can fairly be characterized as backing up the contention.
- Two independent and reliable sources that have made the assertion in some public and documentable manner.
Yes. Sweat the small stuff
By JULIE TOPPING
Detroit Free Press reader representative
(This comes from a staff session Topping organized for Detroit Free Press staff members.)
A recent study on newspaper credibility by the American Society of Newspaper Editors has put all newspapers on alert. The survey found that the public sees too many factual errors and spelling or grammar mistakes in newspapers.
Each of us, one by one, can make a difference by getting our facts straight.
Here are ideas and methods from Free Press staffers and other sources for turning in error-free copy.
- Dial phone numbers after they have been typed. Do not check from your notes. This avoids typos that might have been made between the notebook and the keyboard.
- One reporter suggested all numbers should also be checked by someone in addition to the reporter.
- One reporter puts ck after phone numbers, names and titles she hasn't cq'ed while writing the story. That way, she doesn't forget to check anything when she's proofreading her story.
- CQ all e-mail addresses and Web sites by phone; or by sending a message yourself. Check after they have been typed onto your Atex screen, not from your notes. If you haven't had time to check them before you turn the story in, get a printout. You can make a printout on a read, even when an editor has your story up on the screen. Then you can circle or mark off the phone numbers, e-mails and Web sites you have checked.
- Another Free Press reporter checks all Web addresses just before deadline, because they often change -- especially if the story has been in a queue for several days (or weeks).
- Spell all names back to sources -- even the ones you think you know how to spell.
- If you are doing an interview in person, show the name to the source after you've written it down to avoid any misunderstanding.
- Underline or circle the names of people you have checked. That way you know you have them right.
- Fact check all names of companies and organizations with a primary source. Do not take the word of someone who spells it for you. They are always certain, but they are often wrong.
- Take time to fact check your story before you turn it in, even if it adds more time to your work. Be aware of your deadline. That way, you'll be sure you have the time to check your facts.
- One reporter says she prints out every story she writes after turning it in and then fact checks it in case there was a misinterpretation or other problem during editing.
- Fact check a story by running the facts by a source or an expert on the topic you're writing about. You can do this with a printout after you've turned the story in if you run out of time.
- When one reporter does her fact check, she literally checks every fact on a paper copy of the story with the original source of information (documents, interview notes).
- If a reporter has to dictate a story, have someone call the reporter back to double check the finished copy. Miscommunication can be caught that way.
- Always read the clips, but never trust anything in them. How do you know the first story was correct? Has something changed since the story was written? Use primary sources.
- Check all locations and location names with a map. Check all routes and sites, even when you think you know the area. There are maps of the neighborhood regions in Detroit inside the stylebook.
- One reporter always insists on seeing graphics, photographs and cutlines herself so she can fact check them.
- Attribute all superlatives, or avoid them. Best, fastest, biggest, widest -- often aren't.
- Read your story after it has been edited by the copy desk. Changes made? Ask why. Critical reading can enhance your awareness of style.
- Never assume anything. Leave nothing to chance. If you're feeling uneasy about something you've typed, check it.
- As you're interviewing, make a mark when someone gives you an important fact so that when you have “one last question” you can find the marks and then follow up to make sure you are clear.
- Make a list of facts to check as you write your story so you don't forget to go back and check important things when you're done.
- If a caption or graphic doesn't agree with a story, never assume one or the other is wrong -- check both.
- Web sites are notorious sources of misinformation. Anyone can put up a Web site, but that doesn't make that person a reliable source.
- Check all calculations with a calculator. In other words, do the math.
- If you're reading a page proof, check break lines to make sure they're correct, double check captions, make sure the right caption is with the right photo. Also check folios (the page and date at the top of the page).
- If you make ANY changes in content, be sure to run them by the reporter or the assignment editor. Even if you don't have time to ask while editing a story, flash the change by the reporter or editor in a message.
- Always find the first reference to a person in copy. Make sure it has the name and title.
- Always look for an opportunity to discuss the headline with the reporter, assigning editor or a colleague, especially if the story is complex or sensitive.
- Always go back and read the full sentence if you've changed a word or two. A frequent editing error is to fix a word or phrase at one part of a sentence and not see that the fix affected something else. Subject-verb disagreement and pronoun-antecedent disagreement are frequent results.
- Always match names and numbers in a headline and story. Also, cross-check facts in cutlines, charts, infographics and agate lists. The more times a fact is repeated, the more chance one of them will be wrong.
More tricks of the trade
Also, Frank E. Fee Jr., Knight professor of editing at Ohio University, does workshops on accuracy in news, based on years of newsroom experience plus some research.
Thanks to David Crumm, Frank Fee, Alison Young, Carol Teegardin, Bill Laitner, Ellen Creager, Heather Newman, Kim Norris, Alex Cruden and Wendy Wendland for their suggestions.
= = =
Julie Topping is now chief of copy desks at the Charlotte Observer.
A Journalist’s Toolbox:
Chip Berlet, “Big Stories, Spooky Sources,” Columbia Journalism Review, May/June 1993.
These pages are adapted from a course, "Strategic Research, Analysis and Reporting," developed by Chip Berlet, Holly Sklar, and Abby Scher for the
Z Media Institute hosted by Z Magazine in Woods Hole Massachusetts. Please do not copy or distribute material from these pages.
Links are welcome.
All material unless attributed to a specific author is
© 1968-2015 by Research for Progress
All Z Media Institute material © 1997-2015 by
Chip Berlet, Holly Sklar, & Abby Scher