20/20 #5 — Fact checking

According to Wikipedia:

“The resources and time needed for fact-checking mean that this work is not done at most newspapers, where reporters’ timely ability to correct and verify their own data and information is chief among their qualifications.”

Is Wikipedia a reliable source? How do you know?

These are key questions for fact-checking:

  • Where did you get the information?
  • Why should you trust this source?
  • Did you accurately report the information?

Wikipedia is right, in this case — you, the reporter, are the primary fact-checker. Wikipedia, however, is written by many people, and is not a reliable source by itself. You can find information on Wikipedia — just as you can get information from a political campaign — but in neither case can you take that information as factual without further confirmation.

Names:

Get the spelling right.

Get the title right.

Then go back and re-check both.

Numbers:

Know what the numbers in your story mean. Someone tells you that St. Paul Public Schools lost 12,000 students last year? Think about it. How many students are enrolled in St. Paul public schools? What percentage does that number represent? Is this plausible? Who told you? Who would be a logical person to know about these numbers? Can you get confirmation?

Watch the big numbers. Was it a million or a billion or a trillion? Double-check and get it right.

Take care with statistics. The old saying is that “figures don’t lie, but liars sure do figure.” If you don’t understand statistics, LEARN. What does “average” mean? Is this the median or the mode or the mean? If the number of murders in Minneapolis in December 2008 is double the number in 2007, does that mean the number went from five to ten (probably significant) or from one to two (probably not significant)?

Saying it yourself versus reporting what someone else says:

One month before election day, Franken is leading Coleman by nine percentage points.

OR

One month before election day, Franken is leading Coleman by nine percentage points, according to the ABC/123 poll conducted by the MSM Post.

But can you always excuse yourself by saying you were quoting a source? What if the source is lying? How much responsibility do you have for making sure that the source is reliable — or for calling out a source for misstating facts?

Let’s say that Professor O. B. Fuscation said the moon may actually be made of green cheese. Should you report this and then add a statement that Professor S. Nopes says this is not true? Or should you report that 99.9 percent of all scientists say that it is more likely that old Fuscation’s head is made of green cheese? At what point is a misstatement or lie simply so preposterous that you should not report it at all?

Questions for discussion:

Where do you look for facts and figures? What sources can you recommend to other writers?

What is your obligation to go beyond the statements made by politicians or  PR people and to dig for the truth?

©2008-2014 Mary Turck

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