Fact Checking Advice

Posted on Sunday, July 29, 2018 at 1:56 PM

If fact-checking is required, take nothing for granted.

By Howard Rauch

For many editors, especially those with B2B publications, fact-checking has been a do-it-yourself affair. Staffers do their own verification because hiring full-time accuracy monitors is beyond most budgets. At the same time, the array of misinformation has exploded online. Plus, growing demand for content now means more frequent deadlines, often resulting in hasty editing.

Meanwhile, mounting workloads have increased reliance on outsourced material to meet content demands. In too many cases, editors fill space with unedited PR announcements. And unfortunately, there are times when breaking news sections include promotional material that amounts to an editorial embarrassment.

All those challenges -- and many more -- create the perfect opportunity for accuracy to take a hit. In this environment, editors who eagerly pick up material from secondary sources cannot assume that the content is error-free. This article offers a glimpse at red flags that should be addressed in any fact-management policy.

Three Red Flags

1. Verify Research.

Instructive in this respect -- and many others -- is the sourcing section of BuzzFeed's Editorial Standards and Ethics Guide. Here is an excerpt from its recommendation for verifying polls and other studies:

When considering reporting on a study or poll, ask these questions:

--Have the authors included a detailed methodology?

--How many people did they study? (For most studies, be skeptical of anything below 100; for polls, anything below 1,000.)

--Do the authors have any conflicts of interest?

--For medical studies: Was the study performed on humans or other animals? (Drugs, for example, that work in mice might fail in humans.)

--For polls: How, precisely, were the questions worded?

--Never take information directly from a press release. Instead, ask the authors for a copy of the actual study or poll.

2. Use Accuracy Checklists.

Two media accuracy authorities, Poynter's Regret the Error's Craig Silverman and the late Steve Buttry, who was a Louisiana State University scholar, strongly recommend the creation of written guidelines for fact-gathering situations.

Recently, I asked two dozen freelance writers serving B2B clients if they used a checklist. Only one responded in the affirmative. All brands can benefit from Silverman and Buttry's accuracy-checklist approach.

The accuracy-checklist .

3. Confirm the Validity of Claims.

In my days as vice president/editorial director of a B2B multi-publisher, I took a rigid position on content claiming alleged competitive superiority. Editors could either confirm the claim with the source or delete the claim if source verification proved too hazardous. The risk in question could materialize if an accuracy check led to rejection of information provided by a resentful source.

Editors also were instructed to delete endorsement language suggesting that the publication staff was partial to the source. Examples of endorsement violation would be not editing out adjectives such as "excellent," "efficient," "very useful," or other such wording appearing in the source document. If the information is inaccurate in any way, offended parties often will assume the content publisher was aware of the inaccuracy but took no steps to correct it.

Additional Sources

In the absence of formal guidelines, inaction is the likely course. So as you formalize and tailor your brand's own fact-checking program, here are some additional resources (many reference articles from the American Society of Business Press Editors' Ethics News Updates newsletter):

How to make fact-checking work even with a small staff: This appraisal by former CFO Publishing executive vice president Julia Homer addresses how to make fact-checking a workable proposition. Included: a five-step action plan that even thinly staffed operations can activate.

API's fact-checking program establishes red flags: American Press Institute launched an ambitious how-to-do-it fact-checking program. In this article, former American Press Institute senior research manager Jane Elizabeth provides details. Included: the importance of establishing red flags to facilitate accuracy checks.

PR Newswire fact-checking program establishes red flags: For editors seeking to improve fact-checking procedures the PR Newswire for Journalists has posted a four-part series: Faster Fact-Checking for Journalists. Coverage addresses available tools including how to detect graphics manipulation, making sense of social media, crisis and public safety reporting, and verification, says former media relations manager Amanda Hicken.

Online News Association fact-checking code to be approved soon: Allowing a source to preview an article that includes quotes offered during a prior interview is a logical procedure -- at least two times is one recommendation considered in developing the Online News Association's ethics code. Access to the work in progress was provided to Ethics News Updates by Tom Kent, former Associated Press standards editor and ONA project leader.

How one editor is developing a fact-checking course: B2B publishers should provide a fact-checking orientation course, says Gerri Berendzen of the American Copy Editors Society. Assigned to develop such a course, Berendzen describes her progress during this exclusive interview.

RTDNA calls for adding context and indicating what's left out: "A journalist's obligation is to be accurate," says Scott Libin who oversaw the ethics code revision by the Radio Television Digital News Association. "Journalism requires verification, context, and an indication of what your coverage omitted." The draft of the code section devoted to truth and accuracy is instructive.

Vet the research before publishing it: Effective verification of data remains a critical ethical obligation for most B2B editors. In part I of his analysis, editorial and design consultant Robin Sherman points out that too many editors publish only what's handed to them. "Journalists publish many stories based on bad data," he says. "Poor methodology yields bad data."

Don't publish research unless it meets minimal methodological standards: Six fundamental research measures must be considered during the research vetting process, says Robin Sherman in Part II of his analysis written for Ethics News Updates. Editors must always publish the proper information about these statistical measures, and if the stats don't measure up, don't publish the data. Here's how to determine whether research meets minimal methodological standards.

BBC requires extensive photo verification: The extent required to verify quality of photos and videos is detailed in a report issued by the BBC World Service organization. Most impressive is the depth offered by four accuracy checklists. For instance, BBC editors are prepared to take nine steps to verify illustrations.

Fact-checking challenges examined: Former ASBPE Ethics Committee chairman Howard Rauch offers excerpts from interviews he conducted that address fact-checking challenges. Included are comments by Sid Holt, chief executive, American Society of Magazine Editors; Liz Johnstone, former managing editor, D magazine; and Randy B. Hecht, president, Aphra Communications.

Red flags that might require verification: Gerri Berendzen of ACES cites 10 examples of red flags that might require verification. This is the first of two reports based on fact-checking workshops presented during the 2015 American Copy Editors Society annual conference.

NPR has a 12-point checklist: Former American Press Institute senior research manager Jane Elizabeth recommends NPR's 12-point accuracy checklist during a fact-checking session at the 2015 American Copy Editors Society annual conference.

Process analyzes whether more fact-checking increases pressure on editors' time: Concern that more fact-checking hikes time pressure on editors cannot be confirmed unless a performance analysis is applied. A six-point process to facilitate such analysis was described during ASBPE's May 2015 virtual roundtable focusing on ethical issues.

Concern yourself more with accuracy than with rushing your work, says editorial service provider: Aphra Communications president Randy Hecht urges freelancers and editors to value one another "less for velocity in a rush through editorial review and more mutual protection against errors, omissions, or lesser lapses in our work before it's published instead of negotiating which way the fingers will point after the fact."

30 resources you can use to verify social media posts: Tin Eye, FourMatch, Google, and a program that automatically identifies fake images on Twitter are among the 30 resources available to help editors verify social media posts. Find out more about these and other tools in this review of the Verification Junkie and Journalist's Resource websites.

Steve Buttry's fact-checking tips and resource list still timely: Posted by noted ethicist Steve Buttry in 2013, this document is just as timely now. Packed with timely tips plus a huge section of reference material, this information is worth adding to your present how-to fact-checking file.

Howard Rauch is a past ethics committee chairman of the American Society of Business Publication Editors and a recipient of the group's Lifetime Achievement Award. He also is president of Editorial Solutions, Inc., a B2B consulting firm established in 1989.

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Comment:

"I also find snopes.com very useful in checking information that friends, family and even colleagues share or post as fact." --Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, freelance writer/editor

Greater Inclusivity and Receptivity

Posted on Sunday, July 29, 2018 at 1:55 PM

Keep your focus and think wider rather than narrower.

By Peter P. Jacobi

The lessons keep coming. They blindside you. They don't go away.

Just days ago, I completed coverage of what's considered a significant musical event locally and in environs, the Bloomington Early Music Festival (BLEMF). For my part, I wrote a pre-event Sunday column about what's to come. I wrote reviews of eleven concerts, skipping only happenings such as a children's instrument petting zoo; a couple of programs devoted to the history of folk music in Bloomington (the town is currently celebrating its 200th anniversary), which is not my area of coverage; and a concert in a martini bar. I then wrote a post-festival column addressing its future.

I am veteran enough and self-critical enough to know that my coverage was good; it was thorough, as complete as it should and could have been, and competently written. And, indeed, I received several messages thanking me for the work. A number of fellow concertgoers came up in days after to add their gratitude. The folks who ran the conference chimed in to cast approval. No one has written in to the newspaper complaining. The paper's arts editor expressed her pleasure about what I turned in.

Biting Questions

So, I'm writing this column about myself, about my own reaction to the coverage.

When, in the quiet, I sat down to skim through the copy as a batch, all sorts of questions occurred to me, actually bit at me. What really had I accomplished, I asked myself. And how? And for whom?

Because a number of the concerts were performed at a clip of two or three a day, I determined to hold length down by compressing single reviews into combinations of two or three. That meant reducing as much as possible what I wrote about single events. I managed to do that, to a point. Where I might have written 400 to 500 words on a given event, I held the copy down to 250 or 300. That alone wasn't easy, in that the programs included numerous items performed by numerous musicians. I could emphasize some over others, but it was wrong, I believed, to eliminate anyone. As a journalist, I felt there was a lot that needed to go in.

So I achieved the problem of content coverage, except when these individual evaluations were added to by one or two more of the same, each package reached 750 to 850 (one time, 900) words.

A swash of print, that comes to. Sure, the musicians would read it start to finish and probably clip. So would the BLEMF management. So would zealots of Early Music who came to the concert and, probably, those who couldn't make it.

Did I Engage as Many Readers as Possible?

I wrote all those words, however, for the Bloomington Herald-Times, a newspaper committed to serving a readership with a myriad of interests and wants and needs and expectations and limitations of patience.

My task was not to engage every reader -- impossible, of course -- but as many readers as possible. Had I done that? Is there the slightest possibility I'd done that? I feared, on contemplation, that I had not.

I captured the expected portions of the readership; I'm pretty sure of this. After all my years of writing for the Herald-Times (it's my 35th year), I have established a following. My failure on this occasion, I fear, is that I lost momentum with those who read the paper but have little or no interest in classical music. There are legions, of course.

Normally, I make the strongest possible effort to arouse interest in the non-initiates. In my Sunday columns, I manage to win interest from the would-be uninterested by offering winning material. Now and then, after reading my reviews when they're of normal length, someone will come up to me and say, "I'm sorry I missed that concert. You made it sound worth having gone to." I do make inroads; people will stop me at the bank or drugstore or grocery (my photo is in the paper every Sunday, so there is recognition) and make comments, from "That was interesting, what you wrote" to "I went to Wednesday night's orchestra concert because you promoted it on Sunday, and I agree totally with what you said." Yes, these casual greetings actually happen.

About my BLEMF coverage, though, no one has stopped me at the bank or drugstore or grocery or on the street.

Under the pressure of getting through the concentration of festival events -- planning for, attending, writing, editing -- I had forgotten the cardinal principle: Know your audience. If you write specialty material for a daily newspaper (or weekly), then you must remember the different audiences in that paper's body of readership. There are readerships, plural. My need is to reach not all, but several. Therefore, in the process of covering any story I must keep in mind, from the start, who is likely to be my reader for this one. How can I handle the information gathering, the designing, the writing to woo folks from as many corners as possible and do so without writing down (bringing annoyance from the top) or writing up (losing those with the least knowledge)?

I can be pretty darned good at that. But I can stumble.

So can you for your newsletter audience. Your readers share an area of common importance, granted. Otherwise, they can differ dramatically. Is what you are covering, then writing, then editing, designed for as many of your readers as possible and as broadly as possible, or are you sticking to that one shared interest, nothing else?

I'd say to not lose focus but to think wider rather than narrower, too. That leads to greater inclusivity and receptivity. Ask yourself such questions before you're blindsided, as was your devoted columnist.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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The Fog Index

Posted on Sunday, July 29, 2018 at 1:55 PM

Assessing the readability of a Sciencemag.org excerpt.

This month, we're calculating the Fog Index of an excerpt from a July 25 Sciencemag.org article ("Liquid Water Spied Deep Below Polar Ice Cap on Mars" by Daniel Clery). Here is the sample text, with longer words italicized:

"The radar brightness alone isn't enough to prove that liquid water is responsible. Another clue comes from the permittivity of the reflecting material: its ability to store energy in an electric field. Water has a higher permittivity than rock and ice. Calculating permittivity requires knowing the signal power reflected by the bright patch, something the researchers could only estimate. But they find the permittivity of the patch to be higher than anywhere else on Mars -- and comparable to the subglacial lakes on Earth. Although the team cannot measure the thickness of the water layer, Orosei says it is much more than a thin film."

--Word count: 104 words
--Average sentence length: 17 words (13, 19, 9, 18, 24, 21)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 14 percent (15/104 words)
--Fog Index: (17+14) *.4 = 12 (12.4, no rounding)

Overall, though, the writer conveys the information clearly without getting lost in the fog. But we need to cut a point from the Fog Index to fall within ideal range. Can a simple edit to the third sentence do the trick?

"The radar brightness alone isn't enough to prove that liquid water is present. Another clue comes from the permittivity of the reflecting material: its ability to store energy in an electric field. Water has a higher permittivity than rock and ice. To gauge permittivity, one must know the signal power reflected by the bright patch, something the researchers could only estimate. But they find the permittivity of the patch to be higher than anywhere else on Mars -- and comparable to the subglacial lakes on Earth. Although the team cannot measure the thickness of the water layer, Orosei says it is much more than a thin film."

--Word count: 106 words
--Average sentence length: 18 words (13, 19, 9, 20, 24, 21)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 11 percent (12/106 words)
--Fog Index: (18+11) *.4 = (11.6, no rounding)

We had our work cut out for us, particularly with the four-time usage of the word "permittivity." We had trouble cutting any of these instances, so we had to direct our efforts elsewhere. In the end, all it took was a word swap in the first sentence and a minor recast in the third sentence. We gained a point in average sentence length and two words in the overall count, but we cut a point from our score.

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Editorial Dust-Up at BusinessInsider

Posted on Sunday, July 29, 2018 at 1:55 PM

In the news: How Business Insider's editorial management handled a recent controversy.

Business Insider recently found itself in the hot seat when conservative writer Daniella Greenbaum published an op-ed piece defending the controversial casting of actress Scarlett Johansson as a transgender character. The backlash was swift and culminated in Greenbaum's resignation from the publication, prompting further backlash from conservative media outlets.

Greg Dool discusses the controversy in a July 12 Foliomag.com piece. Citing reporting done in the Daily Beast, he notes that Business Insider's executive editors will now vet culturally sensitive content to avoid future dust-ups. Dool pulls no punches in his assessment: "If Business Insider's editorial standards are such that a column must be taken down ... who the hell was monitoring this stuff before? Were potential red flags not heralded by Greenbaum's prior 'hot takes'?" The problem, he argues, is that this kind of crisis might have been avoided with more vigilant editorial oversight of op-ed content: "It sets a dangerous precedent when the act of editing is so easily misconstrued as censorship, and publishing a poorly reasoned and ill-defended column only to rescind it in response to public pressure undermines the importance of editorial discretion in the first place." Read the full article here.

Also Notable:

Hearst's Plans for the Future

Last week Troy Young, the new president of Hearst magazines, sat down with AdWeek to discuss his plans for the company. He discusses his prior experience in digital but reassures readers that the publisher will work to maximize potential for its print products as well. Most notably, he echoes a sentiment shared by some other major publishers: "We're a content company. I say that because I sometimes worry that the term 'magazine' can put you in a box.... How do we [service customers better] in video, in digital, in voice and in print?" Read the full interview here.

Shifting Editorial Focus at Women's Magazines

Women's magazines have struggled at the newsstands in recent years, but some are experiencing a resurgence in today's highly charged political climate. Some top titles are funneling resources into political reporting to serve readers increasingly concerned with sociopolitical issues. Riley Griffin of Bloomberg.com writes, "Editors at top women's titles such as Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire are ramping up coverage of sexual harassment, reproductive rights and identity politics. As younger American women use digital platforms to mobilize politically, these editors know they'll have to meet readers where they're most engaged. There's a lot of money to be made there, too." Read Griffin's full piece here.

Misinformation Campaigns in the Fact-Checking World

Last week, Daniel Funke of Poynter.org issued a caveat regarding misinformation campaigns against fact-checking sites, citing recent incidents on PolitiFact and other fact-checking organizations. "Hoaxers regularly go after fact-checkers to delegitimize their work and reinforce their own ideology," he warns. Read the full article here.

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