How to Fact Check
Fact checking is an important part of writing an accurate article. Meticulous authors do research prior to committing their thoughts to paper. Not all authors are so careful. Editors and readers serve society and themselves well when they read with a judicious eye. Just because a piece is written and printed does not necessarily make it true. The ability to check facts, coupled with an openness to a possible bias on the part of an author, will enable the discernment of truth or distortion.
Editors have a responsibility to fact check before printing an article or book. Some editors do this very well. Others do not. If you are an editor, the tips below could help you produce better articles thereby building a reputation as a reliable source.
Readers could benefit from these tips by being able to ascertain whether what they are reading is actually true, elaborations on truth, or, just plain inaccurate. In these days of information being rapidly accessed on the Internet where anyone can publish anything, it is vital to know how to pick out what is factual information and what is not. Readers should be aware that facts can be twisted or interpreted incorrectly also, that they can be used as the basis to support a poorly reasoned conclusion. So the fact could be correct, but the logic used to support a particular argument could be defective. This article does not address how to pick out faulty logic.
The Process of Fact Checking. Here is a sequence of steps to follow in fact checking. If you are writing for publication or academic purposes, you will want to do the final step of recording what you find. If you are fact checking for your own edification, this step may not be important to you.
- Read the material.
- Read the material a second time, marking passages for checking.
- Write down the claims to check and list keywords and potential resources to research.
- Do the research.
- Record results including the source.
Who is the Author? The first thing to determine is the qualifications of the author. Experts writing in their field may be given credit as more likely to be knowledgeable and accurate. However, the author may harbor a bias. The use of inflammatory language is one overt clue to bias. The use of subtle innuendo is a covert one. Check for degrees, certifications, awards, and years of experience. Next, look for evidence of due diligence by the author. Are sources listed for claims made? Did the author do original research?
Is the Source trustworthy? In the case of an editor or author, a “source” would be those references used by the author to support his argument. In the case of a reader, “source” also includes the author of the material. Sources should be reliable, knowledgeable, and unbiased in order to be trustworthy. Ask yourself these questions.
- Is the source reliable? Each fact used in a publication needs to come from a reliable source. Authors who list their sources help make your research easier because you can check the source directly and you can make a determination whether that source has provided information in the past which turned out to be accurate. The more well-known the institution or research agency which generated the original information, the more likely it is that the information is reliable. Institutions and research agencies not only do primary research, they also tend to do peer reviews of information prior to its release, and many other interested parties carefully scrutinize their work once it has been released.
- Is the source knowledgeable? Look for sources which have credentials in the area of expertise from which the claim emanates. For example, in the case of medical claims, check with organizations and agencies like the National Institutes of Health or the Centers for Disease Control or individuals who have medical degrees. Look for years of related experience and published research. People who have worked at or studied a subject extensively have more understanding of their topic.
- Is the source unbiased? Independent laboratories and agencies are the most likely source for unbiased information. Who funds cited research projects? Unfortunately, funding often seems tied to the outcome of the research. Research funded by organizations with significant monetary stakes in the outcome of the research should be viewed with healthy skepticism.
If the author did not list his sources, then more work is required to determine whether the source was reliable. Assessing source reliability is most difficult when the source is listed as a “well-placed source” or “an anonymous source”, or some equally unspecific citing is given. In those cases, treat the information as possibly suspect. Two methods can be pursued at this point. Wait to see how events play out before deciding to treat the information as true or search for collaboration or refutation of the claim from other sources.
Search the Internet with care. Just because you find something on the Internet does not make it true. Many blogs, newsletters, and articles are not well edited, not reviewed for accuracy, and do not follow journalistic standards. One of the most common mistakes is assuming that because something appears on the Internet, especially if it occurs multiple times, it is true. Since many authors just restate what they read somewhere else without checking the facts, readers can see multiple iterations of inaccurate information. Remember to verify the source. Find the originator of the information and assess their trustworthiness.
If you are researching political statements, you might wish to check FactCheck.org which specializes in researching the issues which appear on the political scene. Other websites which provide more consistently edited and reviewed information include Wikipedia, sites ending with “.gov”, and major newspapers.
Ask a Subject Matter Expert. As an editor, I occasionally run across something for which it is difficult to find an answer. I turn to experts by searching on the Internet and then send an e-mail request for assistance. Depending on the subject, I might ask college professors, coaches, or whatever other category of expert applies. I provide a short description of my question and ask for their help. I usually send up to five requests which increases my chances of getting at least one response. This has been a successful strategy. I always send a “thank you”!
Ask a Research Librarian. If you are at a loss for how to check a piece of information, ask your local research librarian. They are well-versed in research techniques and authoritative publications, government, and Internet sources and can refer you to appropriate material in their own reference section.
Check with the Library of Congress. You can also use the vast resources of the Library of Congress to check on the accuracy of information. Their online “Ask a Librarian” program lets you submit a request for information and their librarians will research the issue and e-mail a response.
Fact checking is worth the effort. Editors will improve the trustworthiness of their publication by ensuring the facts are well-supported and accurate. Readers will be confident about understanding issues and making sound decisions when they know the facts presented are true.