Fact-checking Lesson Segments
Overview and Purpose
NOTE: It is best to hold this class and give this assignment later in the semester when students have more in-depth stories to fact check.
As a journalist skepticism is your job. As a citizen skepticism is a survival skill. Challenge your assumptions.
This lesson emphasizes that “journalism is a discipline of verification,”  and journalists consider the commitment to verification and accuracy a “strategic ritual” and part of their “professional identity,” which is “something that legitimizes a journalist’s social role as being demonstrably different from other communicators.” A devotion to accuracy is the value that journalists add to issues and stories in the information ecosystem.  Gray, p. 421.
- To help students avoid the most common errors and improve the accuracy of their reporting
- Know where to check for information
- Make them aware of confirmation bias, and how to challenge your assumptions
- Give them a roadmap for the fact-checking process
- Help students create a ritual for fact-checking their own reporting
- Your assignment will be to fact check a colleague’s article
Before Class Assigned Readings
Ask students to read these articles before they arrive in class:
- The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, which states that journalists must “seek truth and report it.”
- The Essence of Journalism Is a Discipline of Verification, an Excerpt from “The Elements of Journalism” by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. Note: “The method is objective, not the journalist.”
- Going Beyond Both Sides, from Overcoming Bias, A Journalist’s Guide to culture & context. Read pages 10-13 which discusses Fairness, Balance and Objectivity, and The Maynard Institute’s Five Fault Lines or cultural borders between sources and journalists.
- Twenty ways to cultivate an open mind, From Overcoming Bias, A Journalist’s Guide to culture & context.
- Rolling Stone’s investigation: ‘A failure that was avoidable’ A report by the Columbia Journalism School
- Do you fact-check a campus rape survivor? FASPE Journalism 2014
Inspiration for class discussion
- “There is no other job where you get paid to tell the truth…we are detectives for the people.” – Wayne Barrett, in his last column for the Village Voice.
- “Any error is everlasting.” – John McPhee in Checkpoints, The New Yorker, Feb 9, 2009
- Check out this ad campaign, Skepticism is a Virtue, created by Mark Graham (CD, Art Director) with Josh Tavlin (CD) and John McNeil (CD) for Brill’s Content.
Discuss the readings and why it is important for journalists to fact check their reporting
Ask the class why fact-checking your stories is important for journalists? Ask for some details of what went wrong in the Rolling Stone story and why? How can we fact check a traumatic story told by a victim without retraumatizing them? No matter how difficult it may be to fact check a sensitive story, our job must be to find out the truth.
- Fact checking is your job. Otherwise, you put the burden of verification on your reader. Your errors erode your credibility and make your readers cynical.
- Journalists must devote themselves to accuracy.
- Accuracy = Research & Corroboration
- Fact checking is a discipline.
- Fact checking is a process.
- It’s your job, otherwise, you put the burden of verification on your reader.
Warm-up fact-checking exercise
Circle all of the facts in an article and discuss where you would search to verify each fact.
Have students do the following solo activity:
Circle all of the “facts” in the printed-out, hard copies of the first four pages of this New York Times obituary, “Dovey Johnson Roundtree, Barrier-Breaking Lawyer,” and to think about about where they would search to verify each fact.
After about 10 minutes, ask the students to discuss what they noticed about the exercise. The first thing you might hear is, that “everything is a fact.” Obituaries are fertile ground to make errors, which require corrections, since Obits contain a series of many facts about a person’s life.
Then you can go around the room and ask each student to start from the article headline and state the next fact they circled, and then to talk about where they would go to verify the information in that fact.
What is a fact?
Ask students the definition of a fact.
Explain that a fact is a verifiable statement. Journalists must verify every statement of fact, and verify every assertion based on fact – this means that if you put someone else’s assertion in your article, and that assertion is based in fact, you should verify that fact.
What is an assertion based on fact, which should be checked? Here is a good example of an error caused by an assertion based on a fact that was not checked.
What do you check?
- Check all names, companies, titles, place names. Ask people to spell their name, write it out yourself in block letters, then show it to them to confirm.
- Check all statistics. Be careful of “millions” and “billions.” When someone cites numbers, ask for (and check) the original source.
- Check references to time, distance, date, season, location.
- Check physical descriptions.
- Double check quotations with your own notes. Check facts within quotes.
- Check any argument or narrative that depends on fact.
- Check historical facts.
- Avoid superlatives like: “only,” “first” and “most.”
(Source: The Fact Checker’s Bible: A Guide to Getting it Right by Sarah Harrison Smith)
Frequent sources of error
- Working from memory
- Example: read page 5 of this pdf in class: aaa.org/EyepieceFiles/aaa/2009_12_December_Eyepiece.pdf
- Making assumptions
- Second-hand sources
- If you use newspaper articles as a source rather than checking a fact with a primary source yourself, you may be perpetuating errors.
(Source: Writing and Editing for Digital Media, Brian Carroll, via Google Books)
EXERCISE: What would you check in this example?
Give students 5 minutes to list all of the checkable facts in this blurb:
The late Zuleika Dobson, CEO of Beerbohm Industries—worth $17.5 million—was the author of the 900-page, 1987 novel My Life as a Pigwig. In her introduction she said, “It’s not fair that CEOs get picked on. – From fact checking at The Nation from The Nation Institute.
Take a few more minutes to go around the room and ask students to each mention a fact from their list. You can check them here. My students found additional two:
- Is “she” the correct pronoun?
- Double check that it should be million and not billion.
Always ask the following:
- “How do they know?”
- “Are they biased?”
- “What don’t I know?”
Evaluate Your Sources
When evaluating authority and/or accuracy, always consider the following:
- Whose page is it? Go to the “About” page on the site. Search whoxy.com to see if registry info is public.
- Is the domain name a .edu, .gov, .mil?
- Do you recognize the agency, institution, individual? Check Source Watch from the Center for Media and Democracy.
- Is their work a peer-reviewed, edited scholarly publication or reference work.
- If the page sources the info, go to the source.
- Is the info current? Always look for the most recent info from a primary source.
- Recognize parody, trolls or bias
Where do you check?
- Primary sources:
- court documents
- government reports
- government hearing testimony
- video recordings
- scholarly data
- Databases of news and journal articles, like LexisNexis or ScienceDirect, which aren’t accessible on the web, but are available in libraries
- Library electronic reference books and databases
- Contact an expert – but check them out
- Google scholar
- Google Books
- Open Data Portals
- Find a Stakeholder, like an organization or association. A stakeholder is someone who cares about the same thing you do.
“our subconscious tendency to seek and interpret information and other evidence in ways that affirm our existing beliefs, ideas, expectations, and/or hypotheses. Therefore, confirmation bias is both affected by and feeds our implicit biases. It can be most entrenched around beliefs and ideas that we are strongly attached to or that provoke a strong emotional response.” (Source: Facing History and Ourselves)
Ask students to define confirmation bias, based on the reading.
Ask students to talk about the confirmation biases that may have played a role in the Rolling Stone’s UVA reporting, based on the reading.
Review the definitions of Fairness, Objectivity and Balance from the reading.
Ask students to discuss some of the ways to thwart confirmation bias.
How to Thwart Your Confirmation Bias:
- Challenge Your Assumptions.
- “Counter-argue your story hypothesis,” or source’s assertion.**
- Actively seek out contrary information.
- Rigorously test and verify every fact or assertion of fact before you publish, so you’ll be able to stand by the accuracy of your work later.
Talk about this article in class: Do you fact check a campus rape survivor? FASPE Journalism. You can still pursue the truth with sensitivity. If you have to, blame your editor when you have to ask the tough questions, but you must seek corroborating evidence.
Keep Accurate Notes of Your Research
Begin the fact-checking process by keeping meticulous track/notes of your research as from start to finish, including methods and sources.You might need to turn your research over to your editor or to your company’s general counsel.
Introduce students to the 4-Step Accuracy Checklist for Reporters.
Start with an open-ended question to elicit students’ observations about the fact-checking process.
3-2-1 Exit Ticket
Have students answer these three brief concluding reflection questions on paper or through an online service like Socrative:
3. Write down three takeaways from this lesson;
2. Write down two questions you still have after this lesson;
1. Write down the one thing you enjoyed the most about this lesson.
Graded Fact-checking assignment (Detailed Instructions for Fact-checking Your Classmate’s Article).
NOTE: It is best to hold this class for and give this assignment later in the semester when students have more in-depth stories to fact check.
- Your research prof will email you to assign you a classmate’s story to fact check.
- Your grade will be assigned for how well you fact checked the story you were given.
Fact-checking assignment instructions/example:
You must fact check the entire article you get from your classmate, but below is an example of the format I’d like to see, using the first three sentences of a Daily News NYCHA story:
- Assignment deadline – two weeks from date assigned.
- Highlight the fact (or facts) you are checking, (you can also do it in track changes mode in word) and then right below, or next to that fact:
- state whether the fact is correct,
- give the correct answer, and then
- list the authoritative source(s) [including links, phone numbers, emails, clear descriptions, etc.] that you used to find each correct answer
- You are actually researching the facts, in order to confirm them. You can ask for the reporter’s notes.
- You DO NOT have to contact sources to confirm quotes. But if their quote contains an assertion of fact, you must check that fact.
- Please email professor with any questions.
Sample fact-checking format:
FACTS?: A maintenance worker lied on a form, claiming smoke detectors were fully functional in a Bronx apartment — four hours before two children died in a raging fire in the home, according to a city report released Tuesday.
CHECK: link to the report here, and annotate as follows: page 4 of the report states investigation determined Rivera was lying about smoke detectors. The residence was located in the Bronx, per page 3 of report. The children died three hours after time on report, not four hours, page 3. “Two-children died in a raging fire,” page 3. Report was released Tuesday, according to NYCHA Press website linked to press release here.
FACTS? The falsifying of records in the Bronx case led to a probe by the Department of Investigation that found lying about safety checks in NYCHA apartments was routine.
CHECK: the probe according to report linked above did conclude this, page 8. It was conducted by the agency department titled Department of Investigations, also according to the report, page 6.
FACTS? A recent random inspection
CHECK: this is what the report says page 7
FACT? 240 apartments
CHECK: report says 220 apartments, on page 7]
FACTS? supposedly checked by maintenance workers in more than half the homes, there was at least one safety feature missing. That includes missing or broken smoke detectors.
CHECK: page 2 of report states: “In 106 out of 188 NYCHA apartments – 56% – DOI investigators observed deficiencies in one or more of the six critical safety items, including numerous missing smoke and CO detectors and missing or damaged fire safety notices.”