Ask The Awkward Questions: Four Fact-Checking Case Studies For New Journalists
So you’re just getting started in journalism — awesome! Whether you’re a teen working at your school’s paper, a cub reporter at a local radio station, or an online blogger with new ideas about how we should consume media, all journalists share the same mission: tell the truth. Sure, that may seem straightforward, but keeping your facts straight can be surprisingly tricky. It could be a minor detail— the spelling of your source’s name, the time an event started, the color of a building’s facade— or something major, like an academic study’s data turning out to be fake. The point is, the presence of any piece of fiction undermines the credibility of your entire piece.
So how do journalists keep themselves and their work honest? Enter fact-checking!
OK, so calling people and annotating how you know everything in your story may not be the sexiest part of the job, but it is absolutely necessary. And for new reporters, the time to build your fact-checking spidey sense is NOW.
At Youth Radio, we like to think there is a certain art to a journalist’s skeptical nature, and because we work with emerging journalists on high-stakes stories, we’ve had to think extra hard about how you teach fact-checking as such an important part of our craft. Our teen reporters work together with adult producers and editors as a team to keep each other accurate.
Here are a few of our stories: four case studies of difficult, surprising, and sometimes downright awkward fact-checking scenarios for emerging journalists.
Case #1: Asking About A Mother’s Murder
STORY: “PTSD Isn’t Just A War Wound; Teens Suffer, Too” (Youth Radio/NPR)
QUOTE: “When I was 15, my mom was murdered.”
What started as a simple personal statement became a very sensitive fact-checking mission in this story we produced about post-traumatic stress disorder and the teenage brain. The reporter, who was 19 years old at the time (part of what we do is pair adult producers with teen reporters) wanted listeners to know that she had a personal stake in the story. When she was 15 years old, her mother had been murdered.
As powerful as this deeply personal detail made the story, fact-checking required some additional consideration. We didn’t want to re-traumatize the reporter by demanding she rehash the details of her mother’s death, but we still needed to make sure the statement was accurate since the story was written to hinge on her personal experience.
We explained to the reporter that fact-checking was a normal part of the reporting process — that we weren’t singling her out, and that we needed her mother’s full name, birth and death date, and the location of her murder. We then had our producers contact the appropriate coroner’s office to verify the information. Additionally, we found an archived newspaper article that verified the event.
In the end, the reporter said she had a positive experience sharing her story, and that she understood the fact-checking process better than before.
LESSON: Even when it’s emotionally fraught, you have to ask for evidence. Be specific when it comes to the information you need, and let the source know why you need it.
Case #2: Questioning A Charismatic Source
QUOTE: “His content gets more than 10 million views a month.”
In general, scoring an interview with a charismatic source is gold for a young journalist. They’re interesting, enthusiastic, innovative — and let’s face it, just plain cool. But rather than revert to fan-boy or fan-girl status, remember that you’re a journalist! You still must question everything! Even that fantastic soundbite they gave you what you and your editor are really, really hoping is correct.
That’s the scenario we ran into when we did a story about young entrepreneurs in Oakland. One of the characters in the story ran an extremely popular music blog. How popular? According to him, the site got more than 10 million views a month. In his original interview, the source spoke very authoritatively about his audience. It was tempting to take him at his word — but that’s not how fact-checking works. Womp womp.
To back up his stats, one of our producers emailed him to ask for his site’s analytics. He sent us three screen shots with monthly totals from three of his media accounts:
SoundCloud 5.3 million plays
YouTube: 4.97 million views
Blog Analytics: 367,000 page views
Good thing we checked! The popularity he reported was accurate if he added up views and plays of all the content he produced, but it did not reflect audience for the blog alone — which is probably fine for him, but not fine in our reporting. We ultimately decided that the blog number alone was a vast understatement of his content’s digital impact, so instead, we changed the line to a broad estimate of total views across all three of his main outlets. After a spirited debate about the advantage of measuring “views” versus “unique visitors,” the script was corrected to say, “His content gets more than ten million views per month.”
LESSON: It doesn’t matter how charismatic your source is — question everything! Asking for proof may not win you any cool points, but it will win you factual points (which are the ones that really count in journalism)
Case #3: Following The Money Trail
QUOTE: “The bill came out to $221,000.”
If you think looking at receipts is tiring for tax purposes, try doing a yearlong investigative story about the costs associated with being arrested as a teenager. When Youth Radio started reporting its “Double Charged” series, we wanted to follow up on rumors we’d heard about teens getting bills for hundreds of thousands of dollars for restitution, a form of compensation that people convicted of crimes can be required to pay victims, based on their losses.
It took us a while to find a character with a substantial amount of restitution (lots of folks we talked to had amounts in the few hundred dollar range). Then we connected with a young man who, at 15, had been arrested for setting fire to some cardboard boxes outside a furniture store. Even though a fire department report showed no damage to his merchandise, the owner claimed his entire inventory of nearly 1,400 items was smoke damaged. The bill, according to the young person’s family, came out to $221,000.
This story required some serious fact-checking. We had to get documentation for everything ranging from his arrest records to the fire department’s report of the incident. We reached out to the DA’s office and to the family’s attorney, who corroborated their story. Our producers made copies of dozens of original documents to make sure their story was accurate. None of that was easy, but one of the trickiest trails to follow ended up being the money.
It turned out, even though the furniture company reported a loss of $221,000, the young man’s family did not pay that amount. The family owns their house with homeowner’s insurance, and the insurance company went to bat for them, negotiating the restitution down to $10,000, and then paying for that amount. We ended up including both the original charges and the negotiated charges in the story, since both felt relevant to the process.
LESSON: If your story is investigative, ask for documentation as you go — and plan on it taking A LOT of time. If money is involved, check both the amount of the original bill and the amount that was actually paid.
Case #4: Examining Your Expert In Context
QUOTE: “We have states now, such as North Dakota. Kentucky’s talking about a minimum wage.”
Fact-checking an expert may seem like overkill — I mean, they’re the people you call to make sure your facts are right in the first place. But as we learned when we reported on minimum wage increases across the country, it’s really easy to take what your expert says out of context.
In Youth Radio’s reporting on how minimum wage hikes were affecting young workers, we conducted an audio interview with an economist who had been tracking minimum wage initiatives across the country. We ended up choosing several quotes from her interview that referenced trends across “The South.” Relatively late in the story’s production, one of our editors (from Atlanta, naturally) asked if anyone had looked into what she meant by “The South.”
Upon closer investigation (meaning we had to find current reports that looked at minimum wage initiatives by state), we realized that the quote we chose could easily be taken out of context. “The South” was a collection of states, and not everyone would be clear on which ones were being referenced. We ended up swapping the expert quote for one that was more precise, breaking down initiatives by state rather than region.
LESSON: Make sure your experts’ quotes will be interpreted correctly. Fact-checking isn’t just about making sure a source has been quoted accurately — it’s about making sure the listener will understand the issue.
Journalists — even ones just starting out — face a lot of pressure to publish quickly, meeting our own deadlines and beating other outlets to the story. But the glory of getting the scoop doesn’t mean anything if the information you publish isn’t accurate. Corrections (or heaven forbid, retractions) do happen, sometimes to veteran journalists and well-known media outlets. But as someone just starting out, you can’t afford for your editors or readers to label you as a reporting noob who can’t be trusted with a big story.
So even if it takes you a few more minutes (or hours, or days) to file, take charge of your own fact-checking: Always ask your sources where their information comes from, and then you need to look for documentation or another source to back it up. When you tell the story, whenever possible, report where your information comes from — “according to….” Ask a trusted colleague to look over your work and point out the reporting gaps. And remember: if a statistic or statement looks too good to be true — it very well might be.
Because you only get once chance to get it right the first time. And that’s a FACT.