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Fact-checking: A primer

The discipline of verification is a key function of journalism. Learn more about fact-checking as a discipline, why it's important, and how to do it right.

Fact-checking as a form of journalistic writing refers to the assessment of statements and rhetoric for accuracy and truthfulness, as well as the debunking of viral stories and rumors. Fact-checking is a form of accountability journalism because the statements are typically made by people in politics, government or other powerful positions who are held accountable for their words and actions. Fact-checks require original sources, intense research, and high-quality data.

The journalistic mandate for fact-checking

The discipline of verification is a key function of journalism. Certainly, data and quotes are readily available to anyone who knows how to search Google. And that’s the problem: Some of that information is more reliable than others, and increasingly have no basis in reality at all. People need to be assured that professional media can help determine the reliability and accuracy of quotes, data and facts.

The impact of fact-checking

Research conducted by the American Press Institute and others shows a high level of respect for fact-checking content. In political fact-checking, there is evidence that candidates and politicians who are subject to fact-checking are less likely to misinform voters and misstate facts. As a part of accountability journalism, fact-checking helps increase readership and audience engagement, according to the American Press Institute’s Metrics for News data.

The debate over format and ratings

In some newsrooms, fact-checking includes a ranking of the veracity of the statement being checked. Research shows that those rankings — which often are accompanied by colorful illustrations and catchy captions — does tend to attract more readers. Research also shows, however, that a rating system does not improve learning or comprehension among readers. Considering the current politically divisive climate in many communities, essentially calling statements “lies” or their speakers “liars” may not be the best way to promote engagement. Newsrooms should weigh the sentiment among their audiences and consider creating attractive and engaging formats rather than ratings, and focusing on the fact-checking of issues rather that politicians’ statements.

Best practices and common mistakes in fact-checking

Clarity, transparency and original sourcing are hallmarks of effective, high-quality fact-checking. Guidelines/best practices for fact-checking should be specifically designed to meet those standards. Clearly “showing your work” to readers and other acts of transparency are essential for building trust — and readership — in your fact-checking program. And accuracy can be guaranteed only with solid, primary or original sources. Mistakes and missteps occur when best practices fail; fact-checkers need to be aware of those pitfalls.

Skills, training and experience needed for fact-checking

Fact-checkers need to possess the basic characteristics of journalists — and then some. Curiosity, a desire to both learn and inform, and the ability to understand issues quickly are important. But in  fact-checking, those issues can be exceptionally complicated and nuanced. Finding the right sources for verification can be exceptionally difficult. Presenting them to people with clarity and context can be an exercise in creativity and even psychology. Inexperienced reporters may need additional training in research methods and sourcing. And even experienced reporters may need training in a more clear, persuasive form of writing.