Fact-Checking Essentials with Kristina Saar
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
Kristina worked at PC World for over four years,
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
the facts right is important to a publication's credibility.
every sentence, breaking it into the simplest facts, while ignoring
statements of opinion. For example, in an article that reviews a
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 joband 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
What is a fact? A fact is any statement that can be
At PC World, the fact-checker would verify information
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
If a fact appears more than once in the manuscript, highlight it
every time. However, ask only once for your contact to confirm
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
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.
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.
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
For unverified facts that cannot be verified, use double brackets
[[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
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.
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
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,
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
what she says.
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
Who uses fact-checkers?
Magazines, book publishers, authors, lawyers.
At newspapers, reporters are responsible for
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
Lexus/Nexus (many public libraries subscribe to subject
A list formerly known as Stumper has been replaced by Project Wombat.
BAEF discussion list (members only)