Fact-checking has always been an essential part of the reporting, writing and publishing process, but with so much misinformation floating around, it’s more important now than ever to submit and publish accurate information.
Unfortunately, many of us full-time and freelance writers and bloggers don’t have the luxury of hiring a personal fact-checker. Even newsrooms, magazines and digital publications have been forced to cut budgets, squeezing out dedicated fact-checkers and researchers.
That leaves us, the writers, to fact-check our own work. This can be tricky — stepping away from your own work and scrutinizing every detail from a new perspective — but it’s not impossible.
How to fact-check an article you wrote: a 5-step guide
When I was in grad school studying journalism, I spent a good portion of my life fact-checking. Back then, it felt taxing and tedious.
But now I understand the importance of fact-checking, and possessing the skill has pushed me to become a better reporter and writer in not only my full-time role, but also my freelance assignments and side blogging project.
Now, do I do an in-depth fact-check of every single thing I post to the internet? Not necessarily. If I’m writing a listicle for my blog about things I do to sleep better, I won’t go through this entire process. However, if I’m submitting an article for a well-known publication on a fairly divisive or complicated topic, I’ll definitely sink time into fact-checking.
So, in an effort to eliminate misinformation, angry commenters and embarrassing correction notes, here are some steps you can take to fact-check your own work before submitting it to an editor or clicking “publish.”
1. Step away from the keyboard
Fact-checking is a lot like self-editing. When you’re so engrossed in a piece of content, it’s often difficult to step back and spot errors and inconsistencies. You’re too close to the work.
That’s why, if you aren’t working under a tight deadline, it’s ideal to put some time between writing and fact-checking. I’m talking about physically stepping away from your computer.
Go eat lunch, watch an episode of your favorite TV show or, even better, get a good night of sleep. Putting that space between you and your content will help you approach it through the lens of a fact-checker — not a writer.
2. Ctrl+P your article and grab your most colorful pens
If you have access to a printer, print your article before tugging on your fact-checking hat.
This might sound a little old-school (it’s definitely something I learned from newspaper and magazine veterans), but viewing your work through a different medium — AKA not your screen — will help you look at it from a different perspective.
Once you’ve got a hard copy in hand, grab some highlighters and colorful pens because it’s time to get busy. Here’s what I do:
- Highlight each proper noun.
- Underline each fact. If I have facts from multiple sources, I like to use different colors of pens for each. For instance, I’ll use a red pen to underline facts from Source 1, a green pen to underline facts from Source 2 and a blue pen to underline facts from Source 3.
- Circle every number. (Numbers always trip me up, so I like to triple-check these!)
Chances are, your article will quickly become covered in colorful highlights, underlines and circles. That’s perfect. Now it’s time to really dive in.
P.S. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t have a printer. You can still underline and highlight text in a Word or Google doc — you just might have to slightly modify. This is all about finding your own system, so do what works best for you!
3. Verify facts and claims
When fact-checking, it might feel most natural to just start at the top and work your way down. That works just fine. However, if I’ve interviewed or cited multiple sources for an article, sometimes I will fact-check by source. Again, as you do this more and more, you’ll find what works best for you.
To start, I check each proper noun. For a source’s name, I’ll ask them to spell it for me. For other proper nouns I’ll confirm the spelling through reputable online sources. As I confirm the spellings, I put tiny check marks over each letter. This forces me to pay close attention.
Then, I’ll dive into the facts and numbers.
Just a quick sidebar: In the reporting and writing process, you’ll want to make sure you’re citing information from legitimate expert sources. For instance, Help a Reporter Out (HARO) is a useful tool, but you might not always find the most qualified or unbiased sources. Really research your sources and cited materials upfront, so you can make sure you don’t have to go back to the drawing board during the fact-checking process.
If you’re fact-checking information from someone you’ve interviewed, follow up with an email or a phone call. To verify their statements, ask them open-ended questions like, “How do you know that?” or “How did you come to that conclusion?” You can also ask them questions to confirm particular details like, “Can you describe the car again?” or “Do you mind explaining the process one more time?” You can also refer back to the interview recording or transcript, if you have it.
If you’re fact-checking information you got online, double-check those sources to ensure what you write is accurate and that the site is reputable. Remember: it’s important to get as close to the original source as possible. If a website cited The New York Times, that’s great, but it’s best to find the original article.
4. Keep a close eye on…
As you fact-check your work, here are a few things you’ll want to pay close attention to:
- Ages: If you’re including someone’s age, ask if they have a birthday coming up. It could be they’re 32 now, but in two weeks, before your article is published, they’ll turn 33.
- Numbers: Pay close attention to any numbers you cite. Triple-check your math, the database or your sources.
- Superlatives: If someone says something is the “first,” “only” or “top,” that should set off your fact-checking alarm bells. Unless you can absolutely verify this claim, use softer language (e.g. “a well-known restaurant”) or attribute the claim to its source (e.g. “The owner, Earl, says this is the first restaurant of its kind.”).
- Conclusions: If you’re making any sort of conclusion ask yourself: How did I get there? Make sure you didn’t make any jumps. As a writer, when you’re deep in a story, it’s easy to make assumptions, but as a fact-checker, it’s your job to connect all the pieces and ensure they’re accurate.
5. Do a gut check
At the end of the day, if you’re struggling to verify a claim, do a gut check. Does something feel off?
I usually play by the rule, “When in doubt, throw it out.” If you absolutely can’t verify something, it’s better to get rid of it — no matter how enthralling or “clicky” it is — than to risk publishing inaccurate information.
You can also always go back to the drawing board. It’s not ideal, but you can ask your sources who else you should speak with and get second and third opinions. Sure, it’ll take time, but fact-checking your own work will make you a better, more credible writer, freelancer and blogger — and your editors will love you.
Got your own fact-checking strategies? Share them in the comments below!
Photo via Andrey_Popov / Shutterstock