This column originally appeared in Navigator, GroundTruth’s newsletter for early-career journalists. You can subscribe to Navigator here.
Milan Polk is an Emma Bowen and Democracy Fund fellow with The GroundTruth Project. For this column, she spoke with Katie Sanders, Managing Editor at PolitiFact, and Eugene Kiely, Director at FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, about how can journalists help fact-checkers do their jobs and bulletproof their work.
Whether or not you aspire to work in fact-checking, it’s in your best interest to know how it works and how can you make your stories easier to fact-check. After all, finding the truth is at the heart of journalism, and you are the first line of defense against misinformation.
1. Always provide links in your reporting
With Google one click (or voice command) away, it’s easier than ever to find arguments to support a claim. Therefore, Kiely warns reporters against using ‘The Voice of God,’ where interviewees make statements that have little to no evidence to back them up.
“I’m a big proponent of attributing everything and providing links. Readers can check the data or source that we’re using to draw our conclusions,” says Kiely. “All of the links that are available should be in the story. When we turn over a story for fact-checking, 90 percent of the story, or even more can be fact-checked just by clicking on the link.”
2. Question everything
Long time relationships with the media and the legitimacy that a high position confers can lead reporters to trust their sources blindly. Kiely advises reporters do their research, and put bias aside.
“[Reporters] need to be skeptical of what they’re hearing. They need to be impartial and make sure that they’re not ignoring one side or the other just because it does not conform to their view of the world,” he says.
He also notes that you should never trust your sources blindly, and always do diligent research. “When you’re writing a story, before you turn it in, make sure the statements are fully supported and be transparent with readers about where the information came from,” says Kiely.
3. Fact-checking and reporting go hand in hand
Both Kiely and Sanders have experience as reporters. Despite the slight shift in what they focus on, they see fact-checking as a part of journalism, and an essential component of all reporting. “We all have journalism backgrounds. We see ourselves as journalists. I still consider myself a newspaper reporter, just now I’m online,” Kiely says.
Sanders also notes that fact-checking is a major aspect of good reporting. “I do think you have to back [your fact-checking] up by explaining in the article why the statement is incorrect, but that doesn’t have to mean it’s the focus of your whole story, like a PolitiFact story, she says. “But I still think it’s a huge reader service because everyone wants to know what’s true and what’s not.”
4. Get local experience
For those who hope to one day work in fact-checking, Sanders says to get experience in local news before trying for national coverage. “I’m a little jealous I didn’t get to do that,” she says. “I would encourage anyone who wants to work at PolitiFact or somewhere similar: get that local experience, whether it’s reporting on city council or a state House before they make that jump, because those fundamentals are important.”
Reporting or fact-checking in a small municipality gives emerging journalists the ability to cover serious issues and get experience with less of the stress and complexity that comes with national coverage. In a local environment, journalists can hold officials accountable at a smaller-scale.
5. Report the facts first, engage in social media second
Sanders admits that one of the challenges in her job is time management. She believes journalists and fact-checkers both need to remember that reporting the facts is more important than engaging readers on social media.
“I think with the age of Twitter, it’s so easy for reporters to get lost in online conversation and not focus on the essential work that we need to do. I struggle with that,” she says.
It’s imperative to take a step back and evaluate your social media output. Are you adding new facts to the conversation or just arguing?
“You have to step away from your phones, step away from your apps, and push something into the world that hasn’t been reported before,” says Sanders. “You’re not going to find it on Twitter.”