When and How to Fact-Check
Although the details of fact-checking vary from one publication to another, most follow the same general process. In an ideal scenario, the fact-checker receives a story when it’s as close to finished as possible—after the editor and journalist have agreed on the draft, but before copy-editing.
Also in the ideal case, the journalist will provide the fact-checker with an annotated copy of the story—in Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or any other past or future word processing software. The annotations will usually be comments or footnotes, and should highlight each bit of the story, whether individual words, sentences, or entire paragraphs. Here are two examples from a story about companies that make food out of crickets (yes, the insects):
The journalist may also provide back-up materials, labeled so it is easy to cross-reference with the annotations. Back-up material can include interview recordings or transcripts, contact information for sources, academic articles or reports, and so on, provided as back-up material via email, by file-sharing services such as Dropbox, or in person.
These are the ideal situations, which don’t always align with reality. Sometimes, the journalist and editor continue to tinker with text after the fact-checker begins working through an earlier version. That means the checker may work on material that gets cut or significantly altered—a waste of everyone’s time. Or, the journalist will fail to provide a clear annotation (or any annotation). Or the journalist will provide an annotation, but the sourcing is poor. (If you are a journalist working with a fact-checker: Don’t be this journalist.) When the journalist doesn’t provide annotations or back-up materials, the fact-checker must get creative and do original reporting.
Okay, so you have the story and, if you’re lucky, some back-up material. Now the hard work begins. First, read the story—but don’t worry about the specific facts quite yet. You just want to understand what the story is about and how it is shaped.
On the next read, identify and mark each fact. How you do this is up to you. Some fact-checkers simply print a hard copy and underline each fact in pen or pencil; others prefer complex color-coding with various pens and highlighters. Whatever works for you is best, as long as you’re consistent. If you’re working with an electronic document, highlight or bold the entire story.
As you work through the document, cross-reference each claim against the source material. Once you’ve verified a fact, mark it as complete. If you’re working on a hard copy, this will be a physical mark with a pencil, pen, or marker—for example, a check or slash through the relevant words. If you’re working in a digital file, simply remove the bolding or highlighting as you confirm each fact. You may want to include notes, source citations, and any other key information in the margins of the printout or as a comment or footnote in the digital document.
Here are two examples of a fact-checker’s printout. The first is from ProPublica, and the second from Popular Science magazine.
As you work through the document, triage the facts according to how difficult the sources will be to track down. Usually, the hardest sources to reach are people. The first step, then, is to contact all the people who appear in the story or who are otherwise cited by the journalist and set up a time for an interview. Email is usually best for the first contact.
While you wait for the sources to respond, organize lists of questions for each by combing through the article and pulling out any relevant facts. This may include portions of the story the journalist specifically said came from the source, or other general information that seems relevant to the source’s expertise or experience.
Next, in between interviews, check the remaining claims against the paper or electronic sources—for example, interview recordings, academic papers, government websites, or whatever is appropriate. For basic facts, such as dates or descriptions, this process will be relatively straightforward: Check the story against the primary source and see if the information matches (see Section 5 for tips on sourcing). But a few categories aren’t so obvious, even though they come up in every story. Here are a examples and tips:
Journalists debate how to fact check a quote. Always check with the specific policies at your publication regarding checking quotes with sources, or editing final quotes. Some publications have a policy about not checking the exact wording in a quote; instead, the fact-checker shares the gist of the quote with the source. Other publications do check quotes. It depends. Remember: Quotes should reflect what a person actually said, while also serving to provide clear information to the reader.
In the best-case scenario, you will compare the quote to:
- An interview recording (ideally, the journalist will provide timestamps).
- An interview transcript.
If interview recordings or transcripts don’t exist, you might try one of the following, depending on the rules at your publication:
- Ask the source to confirm the facts in a paraphrased version of the quote.
- Ask the source to confirm the facts in a paraphrased quote, but use the actual quote (this may help confirm technical language, for example, but doesn’t give the source the sense that they have editorial control).
- Provide the direct quote, identified as such, with the stipulation that they may only contest factual inaccuracies (this is unusual and isn’t recommended).
- Re-interview the source on the same topic of the quote. They may say something quite similar, which will give the checker the confidence that the original is correct.
Keep in mind:
- Sources may try to wiggle out of juicy quotes, even when those quotes are accurate. Don’t let them.
- Removing verbal tics like “er” or “um” is usually acceptable, as is light grammatical correction.
- Swapping jargon for a common word may be okay, but confirm with both the source and the editor. (A more elegant solution: Paraphrase part of the quote, as needed.)
- Rearranging sentences and words is not an acceptable practice. (Exception: A long Q&A, but the introduction should explain that it has been edited for clarity and length.)
- Taking a quote out of context is unethical and making up a quote is grounds for being fired.
In addition to text, fact-checkers are responsible for images. This may include photographs, illustrations, infographics, maps, diagrams, and even cartoons. A good fact-checker will ask:
- Is the person or thing in the photo the correct person or thing?
- Is the information in the caption accurate?
- Do illustrations, maps, and other art accurately depict their subject?
- Are numbers and scales on infographics correct?
- Are illustrations and maps correctly labeled or annotated?
Headlines & Coverlines
Headlines and coverlines help advertise a story, and if they aren’t enticing, no one will read it. These eye-catching billboards are usually snappy and brief—and often, unfortunately, sensationalized. A good fact-checker will pushback against headlines and coverlines that go too far, considering:
- What will a naive reader think the story is about?
- Is the framing appropriate? For example, if the headline or coverline contains a quote from a source, but the source is lying, the headline should acknowledge the lie.
- Many readers only read the headlines—how might this one misinform?
Once you are finished checking an article against all the source material, prepare a report with errors and recommendations. Depending on the publication, the report may go to the editor, the journalist, or both. For each error, the report should include: why it’s wrong, a supporting source, and a suggested correction that is roughly the same length as the original text. Caveat: If you encounter major problems with the story early on, such as evidence of plagiarism or fabrication, or sources that are refusing to cooperate within your deadline, don’t wait until the final fact-checking report to let your editor know.
Separately from the fact-checking report, make a list for yourself that includes all the changes you want to make, ranked from most to least important. The most important changes cover errors that would open the publication to a lawsuit or cause undue harm, should they end up in print. These are changes you really need to push for, even if the writer and editor balk. The items on the bottom of your list are nice-to-have changes. These are less urgent and more subjective.
As you work through the report, make sure to keep track of who approves which changes. For example, if you pressed for a particular change and the editor decided to stet it—meaning they reverted to the original text, overriding your fact-check—you should document that decision. If the editor made the wrong call, there will be an error in the story and you’ll likely all hear from an angry reader or source demanding a correction. When that happens, you’ll want to have documentation showing how the error occurred. Be firm but respectful if you weren’t the cause of an error. The point isn’t to be right, but to identify problems so they don’t happen again.
You also want to be sure to track who stetted what so you don’t get unduly blamed when it isn’t your fault; after all, you are the fact-checker, and editors with short memories will default to holding you accountable for the facts.