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A professional fact-checker explains how to avoid mistakes in your stories


Global Business Journalism reporter

We’re in a world where the internet is overflowing with misinformation. However, if you’re in the news industry, you must know how important it is to avoid spreading rumors and falsehoods while eliminating stupid mistakes in posts and publications.

News organizations need to prevent slander and plagiarism. As a reader, you want to stay well-informed by being able to trust the veracity of the news you are reading. Fact-checking is what it takes.

Susan O'Brian, who worked at USA Today from 1987 to 2008 with the investigative journalism team, recently shared her experiences as a news researcher with students at Tsinghua University. Now a fact-checker for an organization called AARP in Washington, D.C., O'Brian offers tips on how to know what’s true and what’s misinformation.

Susan O'Brian

What needs to be checked?

Names of people, titles and organizations are among items fact-checkers first look at, but other basic facts are ages, geographical references, dates, events and numbers. While most of these can be double-checked easily most of the time, quotations can be trickier.

“Some feel that, when checking on quotes, you call the person up and they give you direct quotes back. But that’s not how it works. Try this instead: paraphrase what they said in the context that it’s going to be written and listen to how they repeat it back to you. You will get more accurate quotes,” said O'Brian, who considers it important to make sure people’s words are used the way they intend.

O'Brian’s fact-checking list includes these items:

  • proper grammar, usage and precise wording

  • being wary of superlative adjectives and adverbs.

  • trying web addresses to make sure they URLs are valid

  • contact information, photos and photo credit info

  • auxiliary information related to the story, such as charts, illustrations, and headlines.

Diligence can turn up unlikely errors, she noted.

“Once I fact-checked an excerpt of a book. They were talking about the Volkswagen Beetle, the car, but spelled it as the Beatles, the singing group. The publisher was mortified when I called her, saying the book was already printed,” O'Brian recalled.

How to fact-check

First, a fact-checker asks the author for a final version annotated with their sources — a version where texts are footnoted with references which might be a journal, a taped conversation, a transcription. O'Brian said you have to read it through.

“You get the gist of it, highlighting where it’s good to go, where it needs further research and where it should be corrected. Marking, circling and commenting — whatever works for you. You develop your own system,” she said.

When doing further research, O'Brian said fact-checkers need to rely on authoritative sources. You might start with Wikipedia, she said, but you never end with that internet resource. Primary sources include original studies, peer-reviewed journal articles, government documents and reports, audio tapes and interview notes from the author.

For O'Brian, the trick is to read laterally, identifying what’s in conflict and comparing different narratives, based on which the authenticity is verified.

“Please bear this in mind: not all websites are created equal. For fact-checkers, our job is to be impartial,” she said.

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