Fact-Checking Essentials

Jongsma, Jennifer

Why Fact-Check?

Fact-checking ensures that a story is as accurate and clear as possible before it is published or broadcast. It improves the accuracy and credibility of a publication/program and helps to eliminate errors. As a fact-checker, you must be detail oriented and committed to making sure every fact in the story is accurate.

What Is a Fact?

A fact is a statement that can be verified. A statement of opinion is not a fact. As a fact-checker, you are working with content that is written, not researching new material. Therefore, you must read the document and identify and extract all content in need of fact checking.

How Do You Fact-Check?

The first step is to read through the entire document. Next, read the document again, this time highlighting, underlining, or marking all facts that can be verified, including phrasing and word choices such as “always” and “exactly." The following are common places to start when fact-checking:

  • Always ask yourself, “Who would know this?” to find the best resource.
  • Always ask, “Does this make sense?”
  • Check assertions about scientific theories and evidence. Sometimes, the easiest way to do this will be to contact scientists in the field (see below); other times, the information will be well-established in the literature.
  • Confirm statistics.
  • Check all proper names, titles, product names, place names, locations, etc.
  • Check terms used. Are they commonplace and agreed upon in the scientific community? Do they need clarification?
  • Check declarative statements, for example, “…this is a big deal,” “the area is huge,” "always," "exactly," etc. The reason it is a “big deal” (how “huge” is the area?) should be explained in the text. If it isn’t, find out why: Is it a big deal because of money, time, compared with something else?
  • Be particularly cautious of facts stated absolutely.
  • Verify any numbers used in the article.

When you begin the process of verifying the facts in the document, you must choose quality resources. Working with primary sources when available (including contacting a source via telephone, reading original publications, accessing government Web sites) and quality secondary sources when necessary will ensure the legitimacy, authenticity, and validity of the information at hand. Statements of common sense or common knowledge ("the sky is blue") do not need to be verified. A source's personal opinions or experiences, or the personal opinions of the writer, do not need verification. If a fact has you stumped, move on to the next one and come back. You may not be able to confirm all facts in an article (if you can't, make sure you indicate that a fact has not been confirmed).

For additional information about working with statistics and scientific journals, refer to the "How to Deal with Statistics" and "Science Journal Resource List" tip sheets on the Science Literacy Project Web site.

Using the Internet to Fact-Check

Many facts can be easily verified, for example, a URL (does it work?) or the spelling of a famous name or place. For facts that need additional verification, the Internet can be a powerful tool, but it must be used with caution. In this day of electronic information, many studies and primary research are available online. Whenever possible, find the primary source (for example, if the document cites a study, try to find the study itself). Reputable Web sites (.gov or government-run Web sites, .edu or university Web sites, publisher Web sites) are more reliable than Web sites run by nonprofessionals (Wikipedia, hobbyist Web sites, outdated or unmaintained Web sites). A note about Wikipedia and Google: Wikipedia should NEVER be your only source to confirm a fact. A Google search is a good place to start, but you must look at the results with a careful eye and select the best site for verifying the fact in question.

For example, what Web site would you use to check the following statement: "The first replacement magnet for Sector 3-4 of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) underwent its final preparations before being lowered into the tunnel on 28 November." If you Google "LHC," the first result is a Wikipedia page (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Large_Hadron_Collider). However, a better place to start is the LHC home page (http://lhc.web.cern.ch/lhc/), which is run by CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. CERN issued a press release on December 1, 2008 about Sector 3-4. As of December 29, 2008, the Wikipedia LHC page did NOT include this updated information about Sector 3-4, making it a dead end for confirming the fact you are checking.

Government and university Web sites also tend to be updated on a regular basis, whereas hobbyist sites are often not updated at all. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) General Assembly introduced the category of dwarf planets and recategorized Pluto in August 2006; However, many Web pages continue to list Pluto as a planet. IAU.org and NASA.gov maintain up-to-date list of Solar System objects. Other sites have not been updated to reflect the new definition of planet [for example, as of January 22, 2009, The Solar System (http://www.solarviews.com/eng/solarsys.htm) lists Pluto as the ninth planet].

In 2004, Google launched Google Scholar. Google Scholar is "a free service that helps users search scholarly literature such as peer-reviewed papers, theses, books, preprints, abstracts and technical reports." This can be a powerful tool for fact-finding, but should be used with the same caution as any other search engine. Not every search result is from a peer-reviewed, reputable source, so consider the content carefully. Google is one of many search engines. Science-specialized search engines can also be helpful (Google "Science Search Engines" or visit the Yahoo Science Directory at http://dir.yahoo.com/Science/).

Using the Internet at a Glance:

  • Whenever possible, find the primary source of the fact.
  • Use reputable Web sites rather than Web sites run by nonprofessionals.
  • Do not use Wikipedia as your only source.
  • When using Google, look at the results with a careful eye and select the best site for verifying the fact in question.
  • Always cite the date you accessed a Web page.
  • Useful Web tools: Google Scholar, SCIRUS, GoPubMed

Using E-mail and the Telephone to Fact-Check

It is often necessary to contact a source directly to verify facts in a document. Whether contacting a source via email or telephone, always remember that you are representing all those involved, including authors, editors, and publishers. Be polite and professional. When contacting a source via email, it is important to NEVER send the actual script. Sources may become self-conscious of how they are portrayed in the article, so it is important to check facts without revealing more context than necessary. If possible, paraphrase the fact(s) into simple, concise statements that are easy to verify (bulleted lists work well). Your email should include deadlines for the information and instructions for indicating corrections in addition to the requests for verification.

As with email, when contacting a source via telephone, it is important to not read directly from a script. It is often helpful to have a separate list of statements and facts ready when you call the source, rather than working from the main document. Always introduce yourself and let the source know why you are calling (to verify facts for a publication, radio program, etc.). If a source becomes upset about how a direct quotation seems to portray the speaker, be calm and courteous, but do not offer to change the article. Focus on the content (the fact are you trying to verify) of the statement, rather than the context (how that fact fits into the script as a whole).

Although you are only verifying facts, not doing original research, it might be helpful to refer to the "How to Talk to a Scientist" tip sheet on the Science Literacy Project Web site.

Using E-mail and the Telephone at a Glance:

  • Be polite and professional; you are representing all those involved, not just you.
  • Never send the actual script to a source.
  • If possible, paraphrase the fact(s) into simple, concise statements that are easy to verify.
  • Include the following in your email: Requests for verification, deadlines, and instructions for corrections.
  • If a source becomes upset about how a direct quotation seems to portray the speaker, be calm and courteous, but do not offer to change the article. Focus on the content (the fact are you trying to verify) of the statement, rather than the context (how that fact fits into the script as a whole).

Additional Fact-Check Resources

  • Libraries/bookstores
  • Subject databases (e.g., LexusNexus, available at many libraries)
  • Dictionaries/encyclopedias
  • Review articles/scholarly publications/press releases
  • Overviews and information provided by the writer or producer
  • Science Literacy Project Tip Sheets
  • Science Literacy Project Science Journalism Resources

Implementing Changes

When verifications and corrections come back, it is up to the fact-checker to confirm if a fact has been verified. Indicate all facts that have been verified (you will need to check with the author to see how they want you to indicate this on the document). Always include detailed notes about how and when you verified a fact (did you use a Web search? Telephone conversation with researcher? When did you access the government Web site?). So what do you do if you find a discrepancy? When you find an inaccuracy, cross it out in the text and indicate what is accurate. Don’t just find a problem; solve it (for example, don't just indicate that a number is wrong, find the correct number). A fact-checker's comments should be few and concise. Remember, you are not adding additional information to the document; you are verifying what is already there.

Fact-checking is an essential part of science journalism, so it is important to stay organized and meet your deadlines. Your careful attention to detail and verification of facts will help get accurate information about sometimes complicated topics out to the public!