Time for in-house fact-checking course definitely has arrived, says ACES’ Berendzen

Columbia, MO. – Faced with an urgent need to increase fact-checking efforts, B2B publishers should provide training in this area for editorial staffs. That advice from Gerri Berendzen, communication director, American Copy Editors Society, reflects her current assignment to develop such a course for ACES members.

For the past few months, Berendzen has been working on a project involving digital fact-checking while serving as the Knight visiting news editor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. “I am developing training modules for student copy editors – and for working journalists who need help in this area,” she told Ethics News Update.

This interest by ACES reflects a general push by publishing associations to have more journalists climb on the fact-checking bandwagon.  Actually, there is no choice, says Berendzen.  “With digital media, information spreads faster than in the past. The speed factor makes it more possible for misinformation to appear. And it’s more difficult to make timely corrections.”

Nevertheless, failure by media to achieve a higher level of fact-checking diligence will widen an already-existing credibility gap, she warns. “Even if we become aware of an inaccuracy just ten minutes after the news is posted, thousands of people already will have read about it,” she says. That’s long enough for a presumption to be made that the misinformation is actually factual.

Skepticism is necessary

One objective of an in-house fact-checking orientation would be to emphasize the importance of being skeptical, advises Berendzen. “Editors can’t check every word,” she says. But developing skepticism in the right areas will help identify “red flags” requiring verification.

With digital media, the list of potential red flags seems endless. For instance, Berendzen points to social media difficulties such as determining whether or not a source is legitimate. Arriving at a well-founded conclusion requires checking who follows an alleged authority and reviewing the individual’s previous posts. Photo origins must be determined. Have illustrations been retouched or used previously in unrelated articles?

(Editor’s note: Fact-checking caution also must be exercised by B2B staffs relying primarily on aggregated material to fill e-news sections. Editors must determine whether sources quoted are trustworthy, says Berendzen. “And if you see information about numbers,” how do you know the numbers are correct?”)

An example of how far journalists should be prepared to go to ensure veracity involved a TV news program’s posting of a controversial quote allegedly uttered by a prominent source.  Berendzen’s skepticism antenna alerted her to check program transcripts. Only then was she satisfied that the quote was accurate.

ENU raised an issue of concern to B2B editors – dealing with news announcements making questionable competitive claims. “If a PR announcement describes a company as an ‘industry leader,’ you should not accept that claim at face value,” says Berendzen.

As of now, ACES plans to do at least one training session on fact-checking at its annual conference in March.

(Editor’s note: Berendzen provides additional insights on fact-checking challenges in a blog posted online last month at the Reynolds Journalism Institute site. During interviews, she says, many reporters have yet to ask sources two revealing questions: Who said that and how did they know? The importance of these queries should be stressed during scheduled training sessions.)

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