Sourcing and Record Keeping
As with any stage of reporting, a fact-checker should use primary sources when possible, which provide firsthand evidence about a topic or event. Primary sources may include:
- Interview recordings or transcripts
- Video footage
- Peer-reviewed research
- Autobiographies or diaries
- Official transcripts of speeches, meetings, or court proceedings
- Corporate or government documents
- Newspaper articles
Of course, just because a source is primary doesn’t mean it’s trustworthy. Autobiographies and diaries, for example, are primary sources—they are direct reflections from a person about their own life. But these authors aren’t necessarily telling the truth, or presenting facts in full context. Be sure to vet every source carefully, following this excellent advice from journalist Michelle Nijhuis at The Last Word On Nothing:
These are not primary sources; they are secondary sources:
- Wikipedia (can lead to primary sources)
- Google searches (can lead to primary sources)
- Newspaper articles
- That thing you heard on NPR this morning
- Political satire
Secondary sources describe, analyze, or build upon primary sources. Fact-checkers shouldn’t rely on secondary sources very often, but in some cases you won’t have a choice. It isn’t always possible to find primary sources for every single fact. If you must use secondary sources, find at least three to confirm each fact. Assess the quality of these sources like you would any other.
For example, if those secondary sources are newspaper articles, be sure that they are unique pieces from different journalists, who appear to have conducted original research using primary sources, and not a newswire story or aggregation that appeared multiple times across the web.
To make matters more confusing, a single source may be either primary or secondary depending on how it’s used. For example, you may have noticed “newspaper articles” on both of the above lists. If you’re using the newspaper article to understand an event, it’s a secondary source; but if you’re referencing the existence of that newspaper article, or the fact that it covered the event, it’s primary.
Once you have all your sources and you’re finished with your fact-checking duties, it’s time to file those materials in case you need them again.
The specific system doesn’t matter, so long as you’re consistent. If a source or reader contests the story later on, the fact-checker or another staff member should be able to easily locate the source material to determine whether the story needs a correction.
How long the outlet stores these files is a matter of preference, but at the very least you should save the documents for as long as the statutes of limitation for libel, defamation, and any other legal issues (the timing varies from state to state).
Things you should save:
- The marked-up fact-checking document (whether this is a hard copy or digital file)
- All of the back-up material, for example:
- As hard copies in a file cabinet, clearly labeled
- As electronic copies in an electronic file on your computer (with a back-up hard drive)