If you’ve been reading about Knowledge-Based Trust (also called the “Truth Algorithm”), you know that Google has looked into ranking websites based on the factual information it contains, either instead of – or more likely in addition to – rewarding sites with quality links pointing to the site. Google engineers published a paper about this technology on February 12, 2015.
According to Search Engine Journal, which quotes New Scientist, Google would assign trust scores to a web page based on the accuracy of the facts it contains. Then, it would rank pages based upon their factual reliability. And, while this isn’t good news for companies and websites willing to tilt the truth in the pursuit of sales, it’s excellent news from a journalistic perspective.
For journalists, fact checking is nothing new
Fact checking has always been a crucial element in journalism; the recent scandal with Rolling Stones illustrates what happens when a publication decides that a story is “too good to double-check.” But, it never hurts to have a refresher – or a new point of view about what’s important in fact checking. So we took a look around the web to see what we could share.
Many of the sites mention the basics – to always double check dates, dollar figures, the spelling of proper nouns (whether people or locations) and so forth. Make sure that any mathematical calculations are correct, that people’s ages are accurate and so forth. Making mistakes in these areas can damage your credibility, even if you get the rest of the piece right.
The process of fact checking
PilinutPress.com describes it succinctly. “If you are writing for publication or academic purposes, you will want to do the final step of recording what you find. If you are fact checking for your own edification, this step may not be important to you.
- Read the material.
- Read the material a second time, marking passages for checking.
- Write down the claims to check and list keywords and potential resources to research.
- Do the research.
- Record results including the source.”
We recommend that you read the entire PilinutPress.com article for tips on how, more specifically, you should check facts.
At GrammarGuide.Copydesk.org, we found more good tips, including:
- “If the story refers to a number of items within the story (15 steps to better health, 10 reasons to use an iPad), count the items.”
- “If a story refers to someone as ‘the late,’ make sure the person is dead. Also, if a story refers to someone you remember as having died, check it.”
- “If a story refers to a direction, check it. That may mean getting out a map and looking at the direction.”
If you’re writing for a site that reports breaking news, you want to break it first – but you also want to share it correctly. One easy way to get tripped up, especially when in a hurry, is to misinterpret or otherwise misreport statistics – and in today’s data journalism world, stats are frequently a key portion of the story.
And, if you’re writing about politics – or even referencing political events in your writing – it can be doubly challenging to get to the facts. Much of what you read contains bias, whether subtly or openly. To fact check this material, consider FactCheck.org, which describes itself as “a nonpartisan, nonprofit consumer advocate for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception in U.S. politics.”
What if you publish incorrect information?
Even the best writers, editors and fact checkers make mistakes. In print, you will sometimes see corrections published (often in small print in hard-to-find places); when you make an error online, it can be tempting to just fix it and hope that nobody has noticed. And, sometimes, you can get away with it (which still doesn’t mean it’s the right procedure!). In reality, of course, writers and publishers often find out about an error when someone else points it out.
When that happens, here is advice from the Digital Media Library Project that distinguishes between the terms “correction” and “retraction,” plus some basic advice about potential liability when inaccurate information is published:
“While the terms correction and retraction are sometimes used interchangeably, in general, a correction alerts your audience to factual errors that do not take away from your main point, while a retraction informs your audience of factual errors that impact the main point of the statements.
“Your willingness to correct past errors in your work will provide several benefits. First, it will make your work more accurate and reliable. This will increase your credibility, influence, and (hopefully) your page views.
“Second, it will likely diminish your liability for defamation and other potential legal claims. Keep in mind that correcting or retracting something you’ve previously published won’t not necessarily mean that you will escape liability. Although a retraction might satisfy the person making the request, in some cases the requester may still sue you for defamation.”
Fortunately, most errors aren’t serious enough in nature to lead to a defamation suit – but it’s good practice to check your facts as if it might, to keep your standards at the highest professional level.