September 17, 2012

Recent media incidents involving fabrication, plagiarism and untruthsJonah Lehrer, Fareed Zakaria and Niall Ferguson — have underscored the importance of keeping one’s facts straight and making them easy for others to check.

Each case demonstrated what good fact checking could have done:

  • Jonah Lehrer: Prevent fabrication
  • Fareed Zakaria: Help keep writers from inadvertently plagiarizing others
  • Niall Ferguson: Stop falsehoods from entering the public discourse, where once released, they often spread farther than their corrections

In all these cases, fact checking prevents damage to the publication’s credibility, and helps avert further erosion of the public trust in journalism. For writers, getting the facts right (plus, not stealing other people’s work) can only help a career.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic who wrote in defense of fact checkers after the Ferguson incident, says, “Fact checkers will save your life. They’re there to keep you from looking stupid.”[1] But he also notes that not everyone is lucky enough to work at a publication with a fact checking department, which means that, often, especially if you are writing under a tight deadline, you and your editor will be the de facto fact checkers.[2]

Here are several tips for making your stories easy for yourself and others to fact check, based on interviews with Peter Canby, senior editor and head of fact checking at The New Yorker, whose fact checking department is probably the most famed in the country, and Jonathan Weiner, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Beak of the Finch” and a professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. These tips were written to apply to freelancers or new newsroom journalists, but they apply universally.

1. When you get the assignment, ask your editor what he/she would like you to provide in terms of backup.[3]

This first step will save you time and the headache of rounding up missing information from sources after you’ve submitted the piece. Plus, the editor will likely be impressed you are asking. A publication like The New Yorker will tell you upfront what it wants, so if you aren’t dealing with that type of publication, take it upon yourself to find out what the expectation is.

2. Note the following information about your sources.

This is what The New Yorker fact checking department requests of its writers — and you should probably log these yourself even if you’re writing under a daily deadline:

  • The home and office numbers for every source you interview
  • The bibliographic information (author, title, date, link, publisher) for every document you use, including books and articles. For printed work, if you don’t have the originals, then make copies.[4]

3. If you’re researching on the Web …

Always note your source. If you’ve forgotten to do so, doing a Web search for the exact phrase you’ve copied can sometimes pull up the link again. If that doesn’t work, go through your browser history until you find the exact page.[5]

If you constantly forget, try, for a week, to change the way you normally do something mindlessly. For instance, try to open doors with your non-dominant hand.[6] According to Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist, Stanford lecturer and author of “The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It,” getting in the habit of thinking before doing something inconsequential will get you to stop and think before doing things that matter (i.e. logging sources).

4. If you’re reporting on site with a notepad …

Weiner, whose books have required him to report in conditions ranging from outdoors in the Galapagos Islands to labs at Princeton University, has adopted certain techniques to help him understand his notes no matter how he took them. He begins by clearly labeling his notes with the location, date, time, and who he’s with. “I also have little symbols that make it easy for myself to note when I’m writing down something verbatim and where I’m paraphrasing something so that when I go back, I know which is which,” he says.[7]

If he transcribes his notes, he draws a pencil line through each page that he’s transcribed so he knows he’s transcribed it. When he finishes transcribing a notebook, he puts a checkmark on the front and saves it. If you’re transcribing from a recording and you find a quote that you’re pretty sure you’ll use, note what time it appears in the tape.[8]

While on site, it also helps to take photos or video. That way, you can check any descriptions you put in your notes.[9] Plus, you’ll notice things you may not have noticed the first time around.

5. If you’re writing a piece with many sources …

As Canby noted in a talk he gave at Columbia Journalism School, which was published in “The Art of Making Magazines: On Being an Editor and Other Views from the Industry,” fact checking is not only about getting the facts within a story right. It’s also about getting the big picture of the story right.[10] So, talking with your editor and/or the fact checker about why you’ve chosen to interview certain sources and exclude others can help you make sure you consider all necessary viewpoints. For the same reason, saving sources that you read for background but didn’t necessarily cite can also help others understand why you chose the angle or frame for your story.[11]

6. Keep your notes organized.

I personally have found special writers’ software especially useful for making sure I remember the source of each piece of information. Scrivener allows you to keep your research and your manuscript in the same “project,” and to link lines in your manuscript to the research sources you’ve saved, including Web pages and the day you accessed them, photos, audio, etc. DevonThink Pro [12] is also software for saving information in different formats, and free software such as Evernote [13] can be useful for the same.

Even if you decide not to collate your materials into one type of software, develop a system for keeping your folders, files, bookmarks and other research materials clearly labeled and organized so that you can find information and so that if you turn over everything to someone else, he or she can too.

7. As you write, note where each fact comes from.

If you’re writing for the Web, you can link to sources that you think readers would like to see. To cite sources just for your editor, work out a system with him or her. Paul Krugman, who also wrote about the Niall Ferguson incident, revealed how he informs his editor of his sources: a list of each fact, plus its Web link. Even if you’re writing in an online content management system, you can annotate facts in the story (1), (2), etc., and create your own footnotes at the bottom of the article.[14]

If you’re writing in word processing software that allows you to footnote, then fully notate each source, including page numbers for any books you cite.[15]

Either way, be thorough. Even if you include a fact that’s common knowledge, it still helps the editor or fact checker if you provide a reputable source.

Developing these habits will not only make you a better reporter, they will also make you beloved by your editors and, if you’re lucky enough to work at a publication with fact checkers, by them too. Best of all, it will help ensure your stories are error-free.

[1] Interview with Coates

[2] Interviews with Coates and Canby, plus personal experience

[3] Based on personal experience as an editor, plus on The New Yorker’s procedure of setting expectations with the writer

[4] Email interview with Peter Canby

[5] Based on personal experience

[6] Page 67 of “The Willpower Instinct” by Kelly McGonigal

[7] Interview with Weiner

[8] Interview with Weiner

[9] Based on my experience reporting, plus crowd-sourced tip from several journalists

[10] Page 80 of the book

[11] Extrapolated this tip based on what Peter Canby says about how helpful it can be to read a wide variety of Lexis-Nexis articles on the topic before writing about it. (Page 80 of the book.)



[14] Based on personal experience

[15] Canby interview

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