Google Like a Boss

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,” [1] 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.”[2] A devotion to accuracy is the value that journalists add to issues and stories in the information ecosystem. [3] Gray, p. 421. 

Keywords are very important to make sure you get the most relevant results:

Here is a Google search:    (undocumented OR unauthorized OR illegal) immigrants

Unfortunately, government agencies still refer to undocumented immigrants as “illegal” or “aliens.” You have to include jargon used by agencies and scholars in your searches to find critical information and data.

This Google search:   (undocumented OR unauthorized OR illegal) immigrants

This will retrieve results containing: undocumented and immigrants; unauthorized and immigrants; illegal and immigrants. OR is one of the few commands you can use in Google.

Phrase search
  • Phrase search – Use quotation marks in Google to search words next to each other in the results: “universal literacy initiative”
  • It works really well with names:  “wesley bell”
  • If you don’t want to miss a middle initial or middle name, use an asterisk:  “wesley * bell”
Domain Search
  • Domain Search =   site:
  • –  this searches only within the nytimes domain
    • Syria
  • You can do this with any domain or domain type. Ask students what type of information you would find on each of these domains :
    • Site:edu, site:gov; site:org

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.

Is this Tweet from Donald Trump about Meryl Streep, Opinion or 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
  • 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.
Authoritative sources

Always ask the following:

Who says?

  • “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 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
    • transcripts
    • 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.
Confirmation Bias

Confirmation Bias:

“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.

**(Source: From Twenty ways to cultivate an open mind, From Overcoming Bias, A Journalist’s Guide to culture & context)

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.

Accuracy Checklist

Introduce students to the 4-Step Accuracy Checklist for Reporters.

Concluding discussion

Start with an open-ended question to elicit students’ observations about the fact-checking process.

3-2-1 Exit Ticket

Have students answer three brief concluding reflection questions on paper or through an online service like Socrative.

Post-Class Assignment

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:

  1. Assignment deadline – two weeks from date assigned.
  2. 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:
    1. state whether the fact is correct,
    2. give the correct answer, and then
    3. list the authoritative source(s) [including links, phone numbers, emails, clear descriptions, etc.] that you used to find each correct answer
  3. You are actually researching the facts, in order to confirm them. You can ask for the reporter’s notes.
  4. You DO NOT have to contact sources to confirm quotes. But if their quote contains an assertion of fact, you must check that fact.
  5. Please email professor with any questions.

    Sample fact-checking format:

    NYCHA worker filed false safety report saying smoke detectors were OK in Bronx apartment that later caught fire, killing two kids

    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.”