Fact check yourself first

April 9, 2018 11:00

This article originated as a Twitter thread and has grown into a Google Doc with many more journalists contributing their strategies for fact checking their own work.

Who are journalists? What do they do, really? Ask these questions and you’ll get a variety of answers, many informed by heroic myths, combative misinformation or simple misunderstandings. Journalists also are not a monolith. We approach the work in diverse ways and present our stories in many formats. What we share is an interest in exploring the truth. To do that well, we need to know how we know what we know and be honest about what we don’t.
 
A few months ago, I decided to be more deliberate about explaining my reporting and writing process to a non-journalistic audience so less of my work was a mystery to readers, family and friends. I added the hashtag #WhatReportersDo primarily to make it easier for me to look back at what I’ve shared. I’d love to see others join me! Recently, ProPublica shared out a tweet about how I fact check big stories, spurring discussion among reporters and our audience.  
 
Who knew so many people would care about highlighters and red pens?

Find the thread here and join the discussion:
 
The likes, replies and retweets also are a great way to discover new journalists you might want to follow. I’ve added many people I might otherwise have never “met” otherwise.
 
For the last two months, I’ve been reporting and writing one story of about 4,500 words. It is based on nearly 2,000 pages of documents as well as numerous interviews. This is how I made sure my writing fairly summarized that mountain of information. It also helped me identify places where I should write with more or less authority.  If I have loads of evidence behind a certain sentence, I can write that bit with much more verve than if the sourcing is tenuous and I have to explain that caveat to readers.  
There are ways to fact-check with the comments function in Word or similar programs. I prefer the tactile experience of pen and paper after I've stared at that screen for days writing a story. It also makes me slow down, which helps me catch problems.
 
First, I highlight each fact, detail or quote in green. I use an orange highlighter for proper nouns, titles, or technical terms for which I need to check spelling or proper usage. With a red pen, I go through and circle trigger words that need special attention, like “first,” “only,” or “most.” I usually start by going through all the orange highlights first to get them out of the way. It also makes it easier to notice if you spell a certain word/name multiple ways.
 
Other things I look for: numbers, timing issues (words like “before,” “after” and “during”), comparisons, job titles, etc. And geography! Quickest way to annoy locals and lose trust is to say something is on the west side when it’s actually in the east side.
 
I use two pens as I do the fact checking. With blue or black, I put a checkmark on things I have confirmed and write short citations for them in the left margin of the page. (Usually, these citations are the short name of the original document and the page number.) When I find an error, I circle it in red and write the correction or my lingering question in the right margin. When I used one color, it was too easy for me to miss fixes in the sea of checkmarks and citations, so I started using a separate color to make the changes stand out.
 
But I don’t have this kind of time! Scaling these strategies to tight deadlines.
 
Many journalists responded to the thread with personal laments that they did not have the time to do that kind of fact checking, if at all. One wrote, “A person needs to be writing like 1 story a month to engage in this type of editing. most reporters are cranking 2-3 stories per day.”

Admittedly, the kinds of fact-checking strategies that started this list are primarily geared toward longterm projects -- with the exception of the checklists.

I don't do this for *every* story. I have a shorter checklist for quick-turns. I needed to be thorough on this one because I spent weeks researching it and pulled from a massive pile of public records. The main thing for me: Be deliberate about slowing down.

To me, it's easier to fact check quick-turn stories because you tend to have heavier attribution than a longform piece and you don't write with as much authority. All the information is fresh in your mind and notebook rather than locked away in a stack of research.
 
On tight deadlines, I check proper nouns, numbers and quotes. I skip the highlighters and do it on screen.
 
For more, check out Jayme’s growing Google Doc and send your own ideas to add. Find Jayme on Twitter at @JaymeKFraser