As a fact-checker, your diplomacy skills are just as important as your research chops—maybe even more important. If you can’t get a source to talk to you on the phone, or convince a seasoned journalist or editor that they really should reconsider their use of a particular piece of information, all your hard work is for naught.
Sources may not understand who you are, or why your publication expects them to go through yet another interview. You may have to coax them into talking to you. Be sure to contact these sources early in the process, so you have plenty of time to set up an interview. In your initial email, be clear and polite—explain who you are, where you work, and whose story you are fact-checking. If the source isn’t available by phone—or if you only have a few straightforward questions—you may want to do the interview by email. Note: It’s harder to ask follow-up questions by email, which may make it harder to catch errors.
As you prepare your questions, consider the material you are planning to ask about and tailor the list accordingly. If the material is technical—say the source is a scientist, and the story covers their work—it is a good idea to simply rephrase each sentence as a question to make sure you are capturing the nuances and word choices. For example, if the story says: “Humans are the primary cause of climate change over the past century or so,” ask the source: “Is it correct to say that humans are the primary cause of climate change over the past century or so?”
But if the story is sensitive, like the source experienced some sort of trauma, it’s better to ask open-ended questions so the fact-check doesn’t feel like an interrogation. Something like: “I know you already talked to the journalist about this, and it may be a difficult topic, but I really want to make sure we have this right. Could you walk me through what happened the night of the accident?”
If the source gets upset during the fact-check and says the journalist has made too many mistakes, explain as gently as possible that editors typically put stories through several rewrites, which means errors can slip in. Reiterate that you are fact-checking to make sure the final story is accurate.
While you should be polite and respectful, don’t overdo it by making promises you can’t keep. If the source insists that you change something and you know it’s factually accurate, tell them you can’t guarantee that change, but that you’ll make a note for your editor. Sources may also ask to see the story before it publishes. Explain that this is against your publication’s policy (it usually is) and that you’ll be fired if you send them the story. If the source still insists, say something like: “We have this policy in place because some people will try to change things in the story that don’t actually need to be changed. They’ll try to editorialize. Even though I don’t think you’d do this, we have to keep the same policy for everyone we interview.”
Both the writer and editor spent a long time getting the story you’re fact-checking into shape, and they may resist changes. Plus, no one likes to be told they are wrong. When you approach your team with errors, be sure to be diplomatic.
Also, don’t assume you’re right. It may be that the journalist or editor has a better source than what you’ve found, or they chose to avoid a source you’re suggesting for a reason. Maybe the author of a report you liked has a financial conflict-of-interest you didn’t catch, for example, or there is a newer report with better, more recent data. Be prepared to talk through tricky sourcing and negotiate changes.
If your team comes to an impasse, consider adding a hedge word, which can soften a claim. The writer and editor probably won’t like it, because hedges take the oomph out of the writing. Still, a good hedge can save you in a pinch. Here are some examples:
- More or less
- Partially, or in part