The fact is, fact-checking can be better
This post was originally published on the American Press Institute's website.
In our newsletter, “The Week in Fact-Checking,” we like to highlight the best fact checks we’ve seen around the world that week.
Frankly, we’d like to honor more of this work. But the bar is high. By its nature, fact-checking is held to a greater standard. There’s less sympathy for error and terrifically high importance placed on accuracy. As it should be.
We’ve studied piles of research, metrics and content over the past few years, and it’s clear that good fact-checking must include certain elements. We’ve gathered them below. If you’re a fact-check writer or editor, think about using these suggestions as your checklist before publishing.
And if you’re a consumer of fact-checking, use our list to help you determine whether the content you’re reading is thorough and reliable.
- Be the best about sourcing.
In fact-checking, hyperlinking to the source of your facts or data is not enough. And sadly, we see fact-checking articles that don’t even bother to hyperlink. The best fact checks clearly display each and every research source used -- by uploading documents, video, audio, spreadsheets, notes, photos, even book pages. Any hyperlinks go directly to the data chart, or the precise page of the PDF. And if needed, the writer includes an explanation or directions on how to use the data.
- Be transparent with your audience.
Just as readers need to know the source of your facts, they also should know why you choose the statement you’re checking. Make it part of your fact-check format. Be specific in noting why the statement matters. (And if you don’t specifically know the answer to that, you might want to reconsider your topic.) Quantify your reasoning if you can (i.e., “This was the biggest television political ad buy in the history of Minnesota” or “Our readers have commented on this story more than any other story this month.”) Such data can help decrease accusations of bias and complicity.
- Be transparent with your subjects.
Not only should you be clear with the subjects of your fact checks about why and how you’re doing your work, it should be clear to readers that you were upfront with those subjects too. Those procedures should be standardized and explained with every fact check. How was the politician contacted? How many times? What were your questions and follow-up questions? Publish the email trail if you have one. (And of course remember that your emails and possibly even recorded phone calls could be made public anytime. Act accordingly.)
- Justify your topic.
You can’t fact-check an opinion. You can’t check a prediction (that is, until someone outside of Hollywood figures out time travel.) And it’s pointless to check a statement that’s unimportant, nitpicky, or simply a minor slip of the tongue. Still, we see too many fact checks that try to do all these things. Don’t waste your valuable time.
- Watch your tone.
The best fact checks are delivered with a lively and informative voice, but don’t get carried away. Be especially careful not to sound flippant or dismissive.
- Be diligent about follow-ups and corrections.
Your policy for making corrections and clarifications should be stated clearly in your fact-checking package. Corrections should be highly visible, and should be noted on social media too.
- Communicate with the community.
Ask your readers for feedback and suggestions, and let them know you’ve heard them.
- Explain yourself.
Let readers know that you have a standard, step-by-step methodology for conducting each fact check. No two fact checks are alike, certainly, but following the same set of guidelines for writing and publishing your fact check will help increase trust in the content and decrease accusations of bias.
- Show off your ethics.
What did we miss? Let us know. And send us your best fact checks for our weekly roundup!