Fact-checking the fact-checkers
Correcting others is the main task of the fact-checker. But what happens when a fact-checker makes an error? Just as fact-checkers have called on newspapers to adopt more vigorous corrections policies, they should make sure they are setting a good example.
It is of course particularly embarrassing for a fact-checking operation to have to correct its own work. The most appealing aspect of fact-checkers is their rigorous research process that should guarantee greater accuracy.
Infallibility, however, is a religious dogma, not a practice one can realistically expect from mere mortals. Any short-term embarrassment of being “out and proud” about corrections will be compensated by the trust this builds with readers. Having a strong corrections policy also allows fact-checkers to assert their credibility when faced with vocal but unwarranted attacks.
Many fact-checking sites do indeed have public and transparent correction policies. I asked for them in last week’s fact-checking newsletter (spam intended), and their responses have informed the writing of this article.
Three general principles should guide a fact-checking operation’s corrections policy.
1. Explain to readers how they can correct you. The best at spotting errors in fact-checks are often fact-checking readers themselves. They should know how to reach out to you and how you will handle their request. The correction policy can be included in a public methodology (see Africa Check, PolitiFact or Chequeado) or in a section of its own (see Full Fact). Full Fact and Chequeado both promise a response within 48 hours; ABC Fact Check recognizes that time to reaction is crucial and promises corrections “without hesitation as soon as the mistake becomes apparent”.
2. Be transparent about what you corrected and why. Different responses are appropriate for different types of error. This is recognized by The Washington Post’s corrections policy, which The Fact Checker abides by, and by PolitiFact, which distinguishes between an update, a correction and a new rating. A typo is (usually) less important than a missing source. For significant errors, the update should be at the top of the article and not the bottom, as is the practice for most responding fact-checkers. The correction should include what caused the mistake and what led to the revision.
3. Correct yourself as publicly as you do others. A fact-checking organization should strive to do more than update its corrected article. If the error sheds a light on a flawed editorial practice, it should change that practice and write about it. Letting readers decide whether the organization has a good track record or not is also useful: PolitiFact, for example, groups all the fact-checks it has corrected. Similarly, Pagella Politica* explains and links back to all its mistakes in an “Oops” page, reachable directly from the home page. Correcting the record on social media is equally important. A Lupa, a fact-checking news agency that will launch soon in Brazil, promises to “use social media to make the correct version as popular as the first one.”
In the end, fact-checking initiatives should not just accept corrections but be proud of them (again, provided they do not occur regularly). After all, their mission is often not merely to inform but to encourage readers to consume information with a healthy dose of scepticism.
One thing is for sure: a public, transparent and rigorously applied corrections policy is central for the credibility of a fact-checking organization.
*Full disclosure: I was Managing Editor of Pagella Politica before joining Poynter and I remain on the board of that editorial project. I don’t intend for this fact to affect my coverage in any way, but I will specify it for transparency purposes any time I cover the Italian fact-checkers on this site.