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Fact Checking Advice

Posted on Sunday, July 29, 2018 at 1:56 PM

If fact-checking is required, take nothing for granted.

By Howard Rauch

For many editors, especially those with B2B publications, fact-checking has been a do-it-yourself affair. Staffers do their own verification because hiring full-time accuracy monitors is beyond most budgets. At the same time, the array of misinformation has exploded online. Plus, growing demand for content now means more frequent deadlines, often resulting in hasty editing.

Meanwhile, mounting workloads have increased reliance on outsourced material to meet content demands. In too many cases, editors fill space with unedited PR announcements. And unfortunately, there are times when breaking news sections include promotional material that amounts to an editorial embarrassment.

All those challenges -- and many more -- create the perfect opportunity for accuracy to take a hit. In this environment, editors who eagerly pick up material from secondary sources cannot assume that the content is error-free. This article offers a glimpse at red flags that should be addressed in any fact-management policy.

Three Red Flags

1. Verify Research.

Instructive in this respect -- and many others -- is the sourcing section of BuzzFeed's Editorial Standards and Ethics Guide. Here is an excerpt from its recommendation for verifying polls and other studies:

When considering reporting on a study or poll, ask these questions:

--Have the authors included a detailed methodology?

--How many people did they study? (For most studies, be skeptical of anything below 100; for polls, anything below 1,000.)

--Do the authors have any conflicts of interest?

--For medical studies: Was the study performed on humans or other animals? (Drugs, for example, that work in mice might fail in humans.)

--For polls: How, precisely, were the questions worded?

--Never take information directly from a press release. Instead, ask the authors for a copy of the actual study or poll.

2. Use Accuracy Checklists.

Two media accuracy authorities, Poynter's Regret the Error's Craig Silverman and the late Steve Buttry, who was a Louisiana State University scholar, strongly recommend the creation of written guidelines for fact-gathering situations.

Recently, I asked two dozen freelance writers serving B2B clients if they used a checklist. Only one responded in the affirmative. All brands can benefit from Silverman and Buttry's accuracy-checklist approach.

The accuracy-checklist .

3. Confirm the Validity of Claims.

In my days as vice president/editorial director of a B2B multi-publisher, I took a rigid position on content claiming alleged competitive superiority. Editors could either confirm the claim with the source or delete the claim if source verification proved too hazardous. The risk in question could materialize if an accuracy check led to rejection of information provided by a resentful source.

Editors also were instructed to delete endorsement language suggesting that the publication staff was partial to the source. Examples of endorsement violation would be not editing out adjectives such as "excellent," "efficient," "very useful," or other such wording appearing in the source document. If the information is inaccurate in any way, offended parties often will assume the content publisher was aware of the inaccuracy but took no steps to correct it.

Additional Sources

In the absence of formal guidelines, inaction is the likely course. So as you formalize and tailor your brand's own fact-checking program, here are some additional resources (many reference articles from the American Society of Business Press Editors' Ethics News Updates newsletter):

How to make fact-checking work even with a small staff: This appraisal by former CFO Publishing executive vice president Julia Homer addresses how to make fact-checking a workable proposition. Included: a five-step action plan that even thinly staffed operations can activate.

API's fact-checking program establishes red flags: American Press Institute launched an ambitious how-to-do-it fact-checking program. In this article, former American Press Institute senior research manager Jane Elizabeth provides details. Included: the importance of establishing red flags to facilitate accuracy checks.

PR Newswire fact-checking program establishes red flags: For editors seeking to improve fact-checking procedures the PR Newswire for Journalists has posted a four-part series: Faster Fact-Checking for Journalists. Coverage addresses available tools including how to detect graphics manipulation, making sense of social media, crisis and public safety reporting, and verification, says former media relations manager Amanda Hicken.

Online News Association fact-checking code to be approved soon: Allowing a source to preview an article that includes quotes offered during a prior interview is a logical procedure -- at least two times is one recommendation considered in developing the Online News Association's ethics code. Access to the work in progress was provided to Ethics News Updates by Tom Kent, former Associated Press standards editor and ONA project leader.

How one editor is developing a fact-checking course: B2B publishers should provide a fact-checking orientation course, says Gerri Berendzen of the American Copy Editors Society. Assigned to develop such a course, Berendzen describes her progress during this exclusive interview.

RTDNA calls for adding context and indicating what's left out: "A journalist's obligation is to be accurate," says Scott Libin who oversaw the ethics code revision by the Radio Television Digital News Association. "Journalism requires verification, context, and an indication of what your coverage omitted." The draft of the code section devoted to truth and accuracy is instructive.

Vet the research before publishing it: Effective verification of data remains a critical ethical obligation for most B2B editors. In part I of his analysis, editorial and design consultant Robin Sherman points out that too many editors publish only what's handed to them. "Journalists publish many stories based on bad data," he says. "Poor methodology yields bad data."

Don't publish research unless it meets minimal methodological standards: Six fundamental research measures must be considered during the research vetting process, says Robin Sherman in Part II of his analysis written for Ethics News Updates. Editors must always publish the proper information about these statistical measures, and if the stats don't measure up, don't publish the data. Here's how to determine whether research meets minimal methodological standards.

BBC requires extensive photo verification: The extent required to verify quality of photos and videos is detailed in a report issued by the BBC World Service organization. Most impressive is the depth offered by four accuracy checklists. For instance, BBC editors are prepared to take nine steps to verify illustrations.

Fact-checking challenges examined: Former ASBPE Ethics Committee chairman Howard Rauch offers excerpts from interviews he conducted that address fact-checking challenges. Included are comments by Sid Holt, chief executive, American Society of Magazine Editors; Liz Johnstone, former managing editor, D magazine; and Randy B. Hecht, president, Aphra Communications.

Red flags that might require verification: Gerri Berendzen of ACES cites 10 examples of red flags that might require verification. This is the first of two reports based on fact-checking workshops presented during the 2015 American Copy Editors Society annual conference.

NPR has a 12-point checklist: Former American Press Institute senior research manager Jane Elizabeth recommends NPR's 12-point accuracy checklist during a fact-checking session at the 2015 American Copy Editors Society annual conference.

Process analyzes whether more fact-checking increases pressure on editors' time: Concern that more fact-checking hikes time pressure on editors cannot be confirmed unless a performance analysis is applied. A six-point process to facilitate such analysis was described during ASBPE's May 2015 virtual roundtable focusing on ethical issues.

Concern yourself more with accuracy than with rushing your work, says editorial service provider: Aphra Communications president Randy Hecht urges freelancers and editors to value one another "less for velocity in a rush through editorial review and more mutual protection against errors, omissions, or lesser lapses in our work before it's published instead of negotiating which way the fingers will point after the fact."

30 resources you can use to verify social media posts: Tin Eye, FourMatch, Google, and a program that automatically identifies fake images on Twitter are among the 30 resources available to help editors verify social media posts. Find out more about these and other tools in this review of the Verification Junkie and Journalist's Resource websites.

Steve Buttry's fact-checking tips and resource list still timely: Posted by noted ethicist Steve Buttry in 2013, this document is just as timely now. Packed with timely tips plus a huge section of reference material, this information is worth adding to your present how-to fact-checking file.

Howard Rauch is a past ethics committee chairman of the American Society of Business Publication Editors and a recipient of the group's Lifetime Achievement Award. He also is president of Editorial Solutions, Inc., a B2B consulting firm established in 1989.

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"I also find snopes.com very useful in checking information that friends, family and even colleagues share or post as fact." --Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, freelance writer/editor

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