First step when creating fact-checking policy? Identify ‘red flags’: says API’s Jane Elizabeth

WASHINGTON, DC – Gathering information from today’s numerous digital platforms requires journalists to work harder at evaluating the misinformation array that exists. “Social media has posed a big problem” says Jane Elizabeth, American Press Institute senior research manager. “There is more reason to do fact-checking now than ever before.”

Jane Elizabeth
“There is more reason to do fact-checking now than ever before,” says American Press Institute senior research manager Jane Elizabeth.

Elizabeth is a driving force behind API’s recently launched Fact-Checking Project. In a statement summarizing the program’s direction, she stressed that for journalists, “one thing that might be worse than getting a fact wrong is getting the fact-checking wrong.”

While the need to do better may be obvious, the typical B2B editorial staff already is swamped via ponderous job descriptions involving online and print responsibilities. Many can’t afford the luxury of a separate fact-checking department or copy desk. Historically fact-checking has been a do-it-yourself effort expected of each editor. Under those circumstances, what’s the best way to take a few steps forward?

Look for ‘red flags’

For starters, how do today’s daily newspapers deal with the challenge of fact-checking the article mass delivered non-stop by editorial staffs?

“Most newspapers never had a fact-checking department,” observed Elizabeth, “primarily because there is not enough time in a daily environment to do an effective job. Magazines may have a few weeks of lead time to do their fact-checking . . . but at newspapers the last line of defense is the copy desk.” With stories coming in one after the other, there is no way copy editors can check every article.

Presumably B2B editors face similar circumstances. So the most reasonable fact-checking effort begins by establishing “red flags.” Elizabeth is “big on checklists that help identify red flags. Anyone wishing to go that route should begin by focusing on quantitative factors. There is lots of room for errors in studies, surveys and polls.”

One red flag, she said, would be the appearance of a partial quote. Always check back with the writer to see if the full quote matches the sentiment of the partial. Finally, be alert to generalizations the author may use rather than specific attribution in order to reflect a personal point of view.

Another tip is to recognize generalizations an author uses, rather than specific attribution. (Editor’s note: During a recent editorial column monitoring project, I noticed an individual who was fond of referring to “industry sources” as support for a view that was solely the author’s perspective.)

A promising post-mortem fact-checking device for online media, Elizabeth suggested, is to include a “did we get anything wrong?” form that readers can fill out and submit.

Engaged in thorough examination

Reflecting the API program’s seriousness, its mission is “to examine the state of fact-checking in media organizations, study best practices, and provide training. In addition, six scholars from around the U.S. and U.K. are working on projects designed to examine and improve the practice of fact-checking.”

To this end, among the features of the API website will be:

  • Q&A interviews with those who study and practice fact-checking;
  • The latest from scholars’ research projects and other studies in fact-checking;
  • Ways journalists tracked down and verified facts in “How I got that fact” posts.

(Editor’s note: One API report – Fact-checking resources: A timely guide to finding reliable answers to timely questions – could be adapted by B2B editors. The idea is to provide written story assignments consisting of timely questions worth posing during upcoming interviews. A variation of this approach would be lists of questions that could be answered only with numbers.)

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