It has been a big year for facts. The number of fact-checking outlets like PolitiFact and FactCheck.org grew from 15 to 52. We take it as a sign that news consumers continue to demand clear, reliable information.
At the same time, fake and misleading news articles created to generate quick revenue — like this completely fabricated story: “FBI Agent Suspected In Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide” — have flooded social media networks, leaving many people with anything but the truth. Companies such as Facebook and Google are just beginning to recognize their role in leading users to accurate information.
At the nonprofit and nonpartisan Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, accuracy is something we think about all the time. An integral step in our process happens after a reporter finishes a story but before the story reaches our readers’ eyes: fact-checking.
Every report we produce goes through a rigorous review. Managing Editor Dee J. Hall, or another fact-checker, typically spends between eight and 12 hours with the reporter verifying each and every word. Tack on the time it takes to vet multimedia elements, and we spend at least two full days scrutinizing each major package we distribute.
We believe it is time well spent.
“We’re in the information and fact business,” Hall said. “It is up to individual news editors to choose to run our stories, and they have to be able to trust us.”
Because even a minor fact error like a misspelled name could undermine the Center’s credibility, we take every measure we can to report with accuracy.
For each individual fact — a name or age, a report’s title, a summary of events, a quote or even an impression — the reporter must produce evidence of it from a reliable source. On a printed copy of the story, the fact-checker numbers the fact, while the reporter shows and marks its supporting evidence, which is also printed.
It is a version of a system graciously shared in 2009 by our colleagues at the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity — one we adopted to improve the accuracy of our journalism after two of our earliest reports contained mistakes.
Every fact-check reveals the need for additional editing to enhance clarity. Hall and the reporter also consider whether a story covers a topic fully and fairly.
“There are times during the fact-checking process where you identify gaps in the reporting,” Hall said. “Let’s say a fact you thought was correct is actually off, what else does that mean?”
It is not unusual for a reporter to be sent to do additional reporting after the first review.
In the end, every story has a thick paper file of fact-checking materials which can be easily referenced and reviewed.
Future journalists trained in fact-checking
In addition to producing high-quality journalism, another key part of our mission is training current and future journalists. We aim to instill our obsession with accuracy in them, too.
This year we began working with The Observatory, a student fact-checking outlet founded by Michael Wagner and Lucas Graves, faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. We assist in fact-checking every story The Observatory publishes.
For the students’ first assignments, a few of the sessions took as many as three hours for one page of text. But as students became familiar with the questions we ask, they learned to anticipate the level of detail — and subsequent sessions went significantly smoother.
Hall said thinking in terms of where you get every piece of information is a good discipline for all journalists to develop.
“It is a different way of looking at your story — as if every word is going to be challenged,” she said.
In these tumultuous times, that’s pretty much the truth.
Cara Lombardo is a Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism reporting intern. During her internship last summer at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Lombardo did fact-checking for the newspaper’s PolitiFact team.