During this unique presidential campaign, the words “fact-checking” have become something of a mantra. Entire sites like FactCheck.org have tried their best to “monitor the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases.” Countless news organizations and individuals have joined the process, often working in real time during major events such as debates.
One of the challenges facing anyone trying to verify factual accuracy is the immense number of social media and other outlets. It’s hard to imagine any organization even being able to keep up with the torrent of information and misinformation, let alone check its veracity. But most people would agree that journalists should be doing everything they can to separate fact from fiction.
As educators, it seems impossible to overemphasize the importance of fact-checking. Both in the classroom and beyond, there is a major push to impress upon students that without fact checking, it’s game over – both for journalists and the public.
As someone who has worked as an editor and taught News Editing classes, I’ve come to give fact-checking ever more prominence. There are a few reasons for that shift. First, a lot of the fundamentals of copy editing can now be handled to some extent by computers. Spell check, grammar check and inline style guides (such as AP Styleguard for Word) do a lot of the grunt work that editors once spent a good deal of their time on.
At the same time, computers in the classroom allow instructors to give students a more in-depth exposure to fact checking – while also offering lessons about the limits of online references.
From my early days of teaching News Editing, I did my best to make sure students were looking for common red flags when it came to facts. I’d walk them through the standard list of things to check:
- Names, particularly of those connected with criminal activities
- Geographic locations
- Business names
After an introductory lecture, I’d have my friendly librarian wheel in a cart full of resources that could be useful in checking facts. Afterward, we’d do some basic fact-checking together, with me giving students a list of errors that had been made in major media outlets and that I tracked down through published corrections – still a great resource, with this as a good starting point. Finally, I’d give students some articles with factual errors in them, and they would use the reference works to try to correct the problems. It was better than nothing, but it was limited.
Today, with students having access to online resources, I can give them much more challenging exercises. Over the course of several exercises, I require students to locate and use a wide variety of primary resources. Some examples:
- In an article about the death of a local resident due to rabies, I included outdated information about previous rabies deaths as well as county and state statistics on sources of rabies cases. Students not only have to find the official state reports, but also have to make sure they have the most current ones.
- An article about a victim of a police stun gun incident mentions that he was placed in a medically induced coma by raising his core temperature. Students have to do research on such comas to find out that just the opposite is necessary.
- A car crash article contains several errors and contradictions. Students can find sources for most of the problems but also learn that sometimes they cannot verify and most turn back to the writer. One example: A victim is said to have been taken by helicopter ambulance to a shock trauma center. Using Google Maps, students can see that the center is just a few blocks from the accident site, so a regular ambulance would do the job. But even Google Maps cannot help with another factual problem: The accident is said to have taken place 1) as the driver was heading south in the northbound lanes and then 2) as she was heading north in the southbound lanes. That’s when it’s time to verify or edit to remove specifics.
- Sometimes factual errors insert themselves into class assignments over the course of time. When I began using an article about a shooting in a local bingo hall, there was no problem with the assertion that the action took place in a smoking lounge. But for years now, that has been inherently incorrect, as smoking in public places has been banned in the state.
- A final article refers to the maximum penalty for a crime the subject has been charged with. Except, of course, I changed that penalty, so students have to check the state penal code to find out what it really is.
Preparing these exercises takes a little effort, but in my experience it is well worth it. Here’s how I create them:
- I start at Google News and get an expanded list of variations on one of the trending stories of the day. I’ll choose a version of that story from a news site far from my university.
- Once I’m at that site, I’ll look through local news articles for something that lends itself to localization – and I begin “factual reassignment surgery.” I’ll grab the text and paste it into a new Word document.
- The next step is an important one. Not only do I change places and institutions to local ones, but I also replace all names, with either real or imaginary local ones (real for officials, imaginary for criminals, victims and the likes). Beyond customizing the article for my students, this step lowers the chances they can find the original article online, which in some cases could tip them off to the factual errors I inserted.
- In some cases, errors automatically appear once I localize the story, as laws, agencies, titles and the like differ from place to place.
- To create other errors, I will do research online for websites and documents and then twist things slightly before replacing the original material. At this point, it’s a good idea to print out copies of the resources I am using, as these will be the ones students need to find.
My proudest – and simultaneously most embarrassing – moments in the class come after I return assignments and go through the list of errors students should have spotted and attempted to correct. Occasionally, a student points out one that got past me (and the original writer and editors). Of course, there’s extra credit for that – and one more challenge to add to my list for the next semester’s students.
Thom Lieb is a professor of Journalism and New Media at Towson University in Maryland. He is the author of “Editing for the Digital Age” and “All the News: Writing and Reporting for Convergent Media.” He is also publisher of SitDownListenUp.com.