Making sure that information is true isn’t easy. Our correspondent takes you through the arduous process of fact-checking a news story.
Illustration by Ana Schwartz for News Decoder
When I first started out in journalism as a 17-year-old, I had never heard of fact-checking. Since the 2016 U.S. election, fact-checking has grown into its own dedicated field. Newsrooms sometimes even hire fact-checkers to go over daily stories, feature articles and, especially, investigative stories.
According to Duke University’s Reporter’s Lab, fact-checking websites grew from 11 in 2008 to 424 in 2022 worldwide.
Fact-checking is a rigorous process that includes going through interview transcripts, reporter’s notes, government documents obtained through freedom-of-information requests and other important materials to make certain a journalistic piece of work is factual and accurate.
The best way to explain fact-checking is through an example. This is a paragraph from a story I worked on. Some details have been changed.
Even when the pesticide problem is widespread, many farmers do not know about it and the problem can take years to fix. John Smith, 58, has been farming in Taylorsville, southeast of Jackson, Mississppi for 25 years. This is the first time he has ever heard of this pesticide and it’s dangerous health effects.
As a fact-checker, I break down the sentence and question each one of its elements.
How that works in practice
Let’s break it down:
Are we talking about one specific kind of pesticide? Have we established which pesticide we are talking about using extensive research and reporting?
The pesticide problem
Facts are laid out in the story that demonstrate that we have established this as a problem through extensive research and data.
The pesticide problem is widespread
The data is national. We’ve interviewed multiple farmers across multiple states or regions. We’ve talked to experts who spent their careers studying this and they all conclude this.
We have anecdotes from multiple farmers. We have survey data from many farmers across the country. So it is more than a few and can be logically categorised as many.
Do not know about it
We know many farmers do not know about it because our data is national, we’ve interviewed multiple farmers across multiple states/regions and they all conclude this.
It can take years to fix
We have government records we acquired through freedom-of-information requests which clearly and substantially establish that the pesticide problem takes more than one year at least to fix.
John Smith, 58
Is the spelling of this name correct? Is he 58? This story has been reported on for nearly a year. Did he have a birthday since we interviewed him? Does he have a birthday coming up before the tentative publication date?
He has been farming in Taylorsville, southeast of Jackson, Mississppi for 25 years
Is the spelling of this town correct? Is it southeast of Jackson? Is this story for an American audience? If so, southeast is spelled correctly. Mississippi is spelled incorrectly and needs to be changed. Has he been farming for 25 years? This number would change since we interviewed him a year ago. It would now be 26 years.
This is the first time he has ever heard of this pesticide
Has he not heard rumours? Had he never heard the name?
And it’s dangerous health effects
There should be no apostrophe in the word “it’s” in this usage.
Assume everything is incorrect.
For an investigative story, we have at least two people working on the fact-check. My colleague calls this “having two sets of eyes” on the story. We carefully interrogate every detail line-by-line.
And we do so assuming that everything we have written is incorrect. We asphyxiate the story. Then we resuscitate it.
Fact-checking builds credibility. That means that it creates trust with the people who read your stories and keeps them coming back. Readers share and engage with stories because you become a constant, reliable part of their lives — at the breakfast table, during commutes and even while folding laundry.
It’s also a good practice in the legal sense.
In investigative journalism for example, it ensures that people named in your stories will not bear negative consequences like losing their jobs. Most importantly, in a world where AI technology and even some heads of countries and multinational companies are creating misinformation, disinformation and fear, fact-checking ensures journalism remains accurate and truthful.
Questions to consider:
- In the paragraph the author used as an example, how many facts had to be verified?
- Do you think that most people question information they read or hear about in that detail?
- Do you think you are the type of person who would be a good fact-checker? Why?
Check out more News Decoder stories about journalism:
Norma Hilton is an independent journalist. She has covered everything from murder-suicides to K-pop for outlets like the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and The Toronto Star. She has worked in New York City, Canada, Australia, Singapore and Bangladesh.