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Ten top tips for checking your facts

Let’s face it. Taking time to fact-check a news story, a feature article or a blog post is a time-consuming and tedious process.

When I worked at South Africa’s Sunday Times newspaper, every reporter was expected to complete an “accuracy-check” form on every story that they wrote.

What I discovered then was that the more you filled them out, the more ingrained the fact-checking process became in your normal working day. Eventually you would find yourself doing fact-checks while interviewing people and writing up the story, rather than after the story was done.

This not only saved you time, but helped you to be more accurate as you would get it right first off, rather than catching problems after the writing was done.

If you’re not working in a traditional newsroom with all the usual checks and balances in place, but in a small online team – or even for yourself – it is essential for you to get it right.

Guided by my old Sunday Times accuracy check, here are my top tips for checking facts on the go and on the job:

1. Flag the details. Check any dates, ages or numbers with the person you’re interviewing.

2.  Take time to check titles and the spelling of names. Nothing annoys people more than to have their names misspelt. If the person says his name is “John”, check it. It could be “Jon” or “John”. I have even met a “Johnn”. Do it by spelling it back to the person rather than letting them spell it to you.

3. Check anything you don’t understand, whether big or small. You can’t write about it if you don’t understand what it’s about. Remember there are no stupid questions; only stupid answers. And even if it’s dauntingly complex, for example something to do with science or economics, try and explain it back to the person you are interviewing. They won’t mind and will appreciate your attempts at clarity.

4. Always get the person’s cellphone number and ask them if you can phone them later to check any facts. They will appreciate you wanting to get it right.

5. Buy a digital recorder and record your interviews. It really is worth it in case you need to check things and especially if the story is controversial and the person might later claim: “You misquoted me!” If you have a recording, you can refute the accusation.

6. If you can tell you’re going to need more information on a story, ask the person you’re interviewing if there is anyone else they can think of for you to talk to.

7. Don’t be too quick to suggest that an interview be off-the-record. Let the person you are interviewing say that something is “off-the-record”. That is unless they are clearly not media-savvy and would not understand the consequences of talking to you on-the-record.

8. While you are taking notes,  mark the good quotes in your notebook with an asterisk or underline them. You can also jot down the timecode of your recorder at key points in the interview. This will help you find the quotations easily when writing the article. The quicker you can find them in your notebook or on the recording, the more time you will have to write and the more accurate you will be.

9. Take a moment to think if you are being fair and accurate. Do you need to approach someone else for further comment to give the article balance? If there is something niggling you, deal with it. Your instinct is usually right on this.

10. If you are really worried about your article being challenged legally, consult someone who knows media law and defamation. There is usually someone like this around in a newsroom. If you are on your own, err on the side of caution. Ultimately, it is your name on the article and your credibility is the most important thing you have. 

Gill Moodie is a media commemtaror and editor and publisher of Grubstreet

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