What to Fact-Check
So, you’re fact-checking a story. What, specifically, do you need to check? The short answer: Everything.
The longer answer is that you should confirm every word in every sentence that is verifiable with primary sources (or in some cases, quality secondary sources; for more on sourcing, see Section 5). How do you know when a fact is a fact? It’s quite like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s description of identifying hard-core pornography, in the famous 1964 obscenity case Jacobellis v. Ohio: It’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it.
Some hints: Look for numbers, citations, and any sort of claim that the writer is presenting as truth. Here are some examples:
- Spelling (names, places, etc.).
- Physical descriptions (people, places, animals, objects).
- Ages (has the person had a recent birthday?).
- Titles, job descriptions, affiliations.
- Measurements (including conversions).
- Eyewitness accounts.
- Scientific or technical explanations.
- Product descriptions and specifications.
- Quotes from movies, history, etc.
- World record claims: First, biggest, etc.
- Anecdotes and famous quotes widely assumed to be true.
- Illustrations and photos (including captions).
- Word choices.
- Individual facts and overarching truths.
- Even the thing you just checked last week.
- Even things you think you know are true.
- Especially things you think you know are true.
- Even if it isn’t on this list.
These last four items are key. Good fact-checkers never assume they know a fact—instead, they double-check it with a source. If you rely on memory, rather than actual sources, you can easily overlook errors.
You’ll also need to check squishier information, which may include the author’s conclusions or extrapolations from the facts; opinions of the author or sources; conflicting versions of a story, as told by various eyewitnesses; and other gray areas. Here, make sure the facts are used fairly. Do the details add up to a story that is true? Are there errors of omission—facts that aren’t there, but would change the reader’s understanding? Does the narrative obscure or confuse the facts? Are the word choices accurate and apt, or do they smear or misrepresent the source or subject?