Checking facts for credible writing
Once upon a time I was berated in a journalism training class.
I’m not often told off for anything, being almost a perfect rule abider and non-risk taker. There was that time in a Body Balance class when I stretched further than was wise, and I vaguely remember my mother not being that impressed from time to time.
What did I do that was so wrong in this feature-writing tutorial? My fault was to guess.
I was given a picture and some facts about Sir Edward Heath. (Yes, it was a long time ago but even then he had been retired a while.) I wrote that he was tanned, presumably from long hours on his yacht.
You mustn’t presume anything, shouted the tutor, who had worked on many of both the broadsheets and the tabloids. You check your facts or you don’t write it down.
Now to modern-day news. While media services, especially newspapers, may still employ fact-checkers and encourage the process in their writers and editors, they can get lost. They’re engulfed in the deluge of stories circulating on social media that are more exciting but less exact.
It is really hard to tell the fact from fiction. But for those of us who want our writing to be respected for its professionalism and veracity, there are services can help.
Snopes is one of the best-known, and it’s brilliant for dispelling urban myths. I have Facebook friends who accept and share random stories that fit with their view of the world, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who grits their teeth and scrolls on by. But every now and then, when the story is particularly angry and damaging, someone will point to the Snopes rebuttal. If you haven’t tried it – have a look. It’s a good read at any time. I didn’t even realise there was a story about Aldi removing the cross from their hot cross buns to appease other religions. Yes, it’s focused on the US, but fake news is global.
And the reason it’s occurred to me to put fingers to keyboard for this article is that I’ve come across a blog from the International Journalists’ Network, giving a summary of the some of the resources we can use to check facts on a worldwide basis.
You may well find other specialised resources too. As the editor of When They Get Older – a website for families supporting older friends and relatives – I’ve found the NHS Behind the Headlines service invaluable. When the papers report a new health scare, or a breakthrough, I check here to understand where the story came from, and just how much credence to give it. There’s a similar service available from the British Heart Foundation. Do eggs increase the risk of a heart attack? Do vegans really take more days off sick? You can find out here.
Fact checking isn’t just for journalists. Whether we’re blogging, writing longer articles for the web, creating marketing materials, or simply posting to social media, we need to be credible. That means making sure that the peg on which we hang our story is actually true. Fail to do that, and our readers’ trust takes a huge fall.