Fact-Checking Essentials with Kristina Saar

Just the Facts, Ma'am (or Sir): Fact-Checking Essentials

February 16, 2005
Kristina Saar was our speaker;
Bonnie Britt and Karen Asbelle arranged this event;
Francesca Flynn wrote these notes.

Kristina Saar is CEO of Saar Research and has taught fact checking at The Learning Annex. She has been fact-checking since 2000 and has received Western Region Awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE).

Kristina worked at PC World for over four years, including three years straight fact-checking every article in the magazine herself. She developed her fact-checking method through experience in magazine environments.

What is Fact-Checking?
Fact-checking is the process of verifying all the facts in a manuscript. Having the facts right is important to a publication's credibility. Check every sentence, breaking it into the simplest facts, while ignoring statements of opinion. For example, in an article that reviews a consumer product such as a printer, the fact-checker would make sure it really does have 2.3Mb of RAM.

A fact-checker must be detail-oriented and have a deep concern for getting things right. It's less open-ended than researching a new article in that the checker confirms what a writer has found and written. Like editing, it is a desk job—and it's fun.

Working with a Document
Give the manuscript a quick read.

Next, read sentence by sentence, highlighting all facts. Include facts from tables. Kristina uses different colors for different sets of facts, such as product specs to be confirmed by her contacts at different companies.

What is a fact? A fact is any statement that can be verified.

At PC World, the fact-checker would verify information such as product features and prices, software versions, tech-support hours, spellings of company names, and URLs. But jobs vary: another publisher might have the copyeditor confirm company spellings.

If a fact appears more than once in the manuscript, highlight it every time. However, ask only once for your contact to confirm it.

Some facts you can check yourself, such as a URL (test it) or the spelling of a famous person's name. Obvious statements of common sense or common knowledge (Bill Clinton was President) do not need to be verified. A writer's personal opinions or experiences, such as those related to testing a product, do not need verification.

The article writer will have provided the editor with a list of primary sources. The fact-checker can return to some of those sources, as needed.

E-mailing Fact Checks
Form each fact into a concise ‘bullet’ statement to be verified by an appropriate source. A statement referring to three different products (‘all products have X’) will become three separate bullet facts (‘product has X’). Kristina does much fact-checking by e-mail. As she creates the bullets, she pastes them directly into template emails to be sent to her contacts. The requests for verification include deadlines for the information, and instructions for indicating factual corrections.

It is important to isolate the facts into bullet statements, rather than emailing article excerpts to contacts. Company sources may want to know how their products will come across in the article, and may try to suggest new text, so it is best not to give out any extra context that hints at the reviewer's opinions. The fact-checker's focus should remain on having the contact confirm whether a particular statement is ‘true’ or ‘false,’ and to get explanations if a statement is considered false.

Implementing Changes
When verifications and corrections come back, judge whether the facts have indeed been confirmed.

Mark off facts that have been verified and record any changes. Cross out inaccuracies, and note what is accurate. Comments should be few and streamlined: don't make extra work for the editors. Kristina uses [[double brackets]] to indicate fact-checker's changes.

For unverified facts that cannot be verified, use double brackets to note [[could not confirm Z]]. Kristina said she might be unable to confirm less than one percent of facts in an article by deadline. Those are then in the editor's hands to confirm, omit, or go with to print.

At the bottom of the fact-checked version of the article, Kristina includes her sources, along with her findings. These sources, plus the writer's sources, go into her master contact list. This is so useful for fact-checking future articles.

Telephone and Email Etiquette
‘You catch more flies with honey.’

Remember to be professional and friendly. You're representing a company. With email and instant-messaging, it's easy to respond quickly. Be sure you're also responding politely and with knowledge. Be respectful of your sources' time.

Very occasionally a source may become upset, perhaps taking issue with how a direct quotation seems to portray the speaker. Be empathetic and calm. Focus on the factual content.

Internet Research
When a study is quoted, try to go to the primary source, the study itself. Sometimes a checker can go directly to the analysts, rather than relying only on what has been published on the Web. Do not spend more than five minutes hunting for a fact.

Managing Time and Deadlines
Publication is a deadline-oriented field. Stay organized, keep ahead of yourself, and make sure your deadlines are met. Cc verification requests to back-up contacts. Make a do-list for each article on your desk, and track which verifications are due to come back to you. Block out time on Monday to work on an article with a Thursday deadline. Identify what you can today, and move on to the next article. Know what is coming in the pipeline and whether a manuscript is being held up at an earlier stage before it can get to you.

Kristina gives her ‘real’ article deadlines to sources, not early deadlines, to maintain her credibility, and sources learn that she means what she says.

An Exercise
Forum attendees tried their hand with a ‘Mock Fact-Check Exercise.’ Kristina reviewed it and answered specific questions. Members who attended the presentation received a more extensive grounding in fact-checking than is described in these notes.

Who uses fact-checkers?
Magazines, book publishers, authors, lawyers. At newspapers, reporters are responsible for fact-checking.

Audience-Suggested Resources for Fact-Checking:
Dictionary (historical and biographical information)
The Fact-Checker's Bible by Sarah Harrison Smith.
City Library Reference Desk
Librarian's Index to the Internet
Lexus/Nexus (many public libraries subscribe to subject databases)

E-mail lists:
A list formerly known as Stumper has been replaced by Project Wombat.
BAEF discussion list (members only)



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