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Fact-Checking: How to Get It Right the First Time

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When I was a 10th grader taking my very first journalism class, the teacher had a rule that any story that contained a factual error automatically received a failing grade.

It sounds harsh, but it only takes one mistake to ruin your credibility. And the mistakes you make can also come back to haunt others: I was a newspaper reporter for almost a decade and potential sources regularly refused to participate in articles because they had been incorrectly quoted before – not by me, but by someone else who worked for the same publication or even by another journalist they had encountered at some other point in their lives.

Accuracy is crucial, but fact-checking isn’t easy. A single piece of content usually contains information from multiple sources and passes through numerous pairs of hands and eyeballs before it goes live.

So how can you make sure that what you produce is error-free? Here are some tried-and-true methods that Knowledge@Wharton has developed to ensure that our content is accurate.

What should you fact-check? There’s an old journalism saying that goes, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Verify dates, spellings of proper names, titles, statistics, claims made by your sources – anything that could be matter of debate. Remember that this information can change over time and be prepared to make updates accordingly.

The first question I ask any source when I sit down to do an interview for the first time is the spelling (and, for an audio or video interview, the pronunciation) of their name and their exact job title.

If a source cites statistics during an interview, ask where he or she got the information (and ask for a copy or the link to the source so you can check on it later.)

Google (more than once.)

If you are working with content that cites a fact without attribution, Google it. Make sure you are verifying the fact with a reliable source. The best option is a primary source, such as a first-hand account of an event or a research paper or report. The next best option is a secondary source, like a newspaper or magazine article. It’s best to verify all information against a couple of different sources.

For example, LinkedIn can be a great resource for checking names, company titles and resume information. But individuals run their own LinkedIn profiles and they may not always update them in a timely manner, or they might exaggerate. In that situation, I would check a person’s LinkedIn profile, but also compare it to what is in their official bio on a company website or news release.

When all else fails, pick up the phone (or send an email).

If you realize that there are factual holes or uncertainties in your content that you can’t verify, contact the source to double-check. Don’t be afraid that this makes you look unprofessional – it is much better to check privately in advance than to have to make a public correction later.

Fact-checking is everyone’s job.

K@W works with several different writers and editors, many of them freelancers who work remotely. All of our content producers understand that they are responsible for fact-checking their work before sending it to an editor. More importantly, we ask them to cite and, in some cases, provide the links to the sources of information that they use.

Our articles and podcast transcripts go through at least two rounds of editing before they are published. The person who does the first edit is also responsible for double-checking all of the facts. The person who actually publishes the content is responsible for doing one final check of the major dates, names and titles.

Admit when you make a mistake

No matter how many people edit a particular piece of content, a few mistakes are always going to get through. When they do, acknowledge it and take steps to correct it if possible. If the source is the one who brought it to your attention, thank them and apologize.

We’re all only human, and the person is a lot more likely to work with you again if you own up to the mistake and try to make amends.

Additional Resources

Here are a few sources with helpful tips for better fact-checking:

7 Steps to Better Fact-checking” — Politifact
Journalists Toolbox — Society of Professional Journalists)
6 Tips for Catching Your Writing Mistakes (and Protecting Your Credibility)”— NPR

Have questions about this post? Get in touch with Rachel Kipp, Associate Editorial Director of Knowledge@Wharton at rkipp@wharton.upenn.edu.
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