Just the facts … about Fact-checking

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As an editor, I enjoy expanding my knowledge and keeping my skills fresh. One never knows of the next opportunity that will arise in an email,  a phone call, or a conversation.  To that end, I started doing Science Fact-checking in 2014 connecting through a social media post that I was interested in, and my name got passed on to the Managing Editor.

Being detail-oriented and meticulous to be sure that every fact is correct and sourced, is an essential part of being a fact-checker in the field of science. It is also an important trait for all fact-checking—accuracy and patience while you wait for the subject matter expert to get back to you in email; while you search through journals and articles to find the one statistic that either supports or refutes the claim made by the author.

Fact-check everything — but be ready and willing to admit ignorance.

—Dig until you find the answer, even if it doesn’t match the statistics given
—Be curious about the primary source material when verifying a claim
—Some claims you won’t be able to fact-check, and that is okay… explain that the answer is muddled or different from what the author writes. it is okay to refute the claim being made by current research that has just come out.

What to Fact-Check? 

—All of it!
—Proper names, titles, and locations.
—An annotated source list, including names, phone numbers, institution names, and email addresses of each human source.

This is important so your fact-checker can check the article and the exact ideas and point of view that match what the author wrote. If you don’t leave a trail for the fact-checker to follow, and they have to do their own research, or track down different sources than the ones you cited, you may come away with a skewed vision of what you were trying to say.

In 2012, Harvard professor Niall Ferguson wrote his cover story for Newsweek, “Hit The Road, Barack”, criticizing President Barack Obama’s economic and financial relations accomplishments. Newsweek printed it without checking the facts.  Paul Krugman of The New York Times, explains how he keeps his editor informed about his sources:

[a]nyone who writes for it document all of his or her factual assertions – and an editor should check that documentation to see that it actually matches what the writer says.

That’s how it works at the Times, or at least how it works for me. I supply a list of sources with each column submission…Each time I send in a column draft, the copy editor runs quickly through the citations, making sure that they match what I assert. Sometimes the editor feels that I go further than the source material actually justifies; in that case we either negotiate a rewording, or drop the assertion altogether.

Is the source knowledgeable?

You need to be sure that your sources have the expertise and credentials in the subject matter. For example, using the American Cancer SocietyNational Cancer Institute, or the Centers for Disease Control to fact-check the latest claims and keep updated on research and development.

I subscribe to a variety of science journals and magazines, both online and in print;  as well as websites that have the latest cutting edge research.  It is never a bad thing to be up on the latest news and studies.

Fact-checking helps to improve the trustworthiness of the publication, by its accuracy and well-supported information for the reader.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, in response to the Ferguson misrepresentation, in his 2012 The Atlantic article, defended fact-checkers:

[f]act-checkers serve as a valuable check to prevent writers from lapsing into the kind of arrogant laziness which breeds plagiarism and the manufacture of facts. The fact-checker (and the copy-editor too actually) is a dam against you embarrassing yourself, or worse, being so arrogant that don’t even realize you’ve embarrassed yourself. Put differently, a culture of fact-checking, of honesty, is as important as the actual fact-checking.

Even though my name isn’t on the articles that I fact-check,  to get the physical copy of the magazine in my mailbox, and skim the table of contents; seeing the articles in there gives me great pride to say I had a hand in that.  To see a list of my science fact-checked articles, come on over to my Bookshelf, and look for the Genome Magazine listings.

Checklist Image courtesy of Shutterstock

2 thoughts on “Just the facts … about Fact-checking

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