Over the last few weeks, Rolling Stone magazine has been the center of a cautionary tale in journalism ethics and one that offers a sobering reminder that fact-checking always matters.
The key scene of Rolling Stone’s November 19 story about a gang rape that reportedly went ignored by police and officials at the University of Virginia was called into question after other journalists asked about its vetting process.
Following criticism and a vast amount of reporting by the Washington Post, the magazine has retracted the story saying it failed to meet the most basic of industry-wide standards, including talking to sources and verifying a first-person account. But we’ll let Eric Wemple of the Washington Post dissect the finer points of the entire episode.
The story and the reaction that followed sparked a conversation on fact-checking among journalists, including industry veterans inside the Investigative News Network.
In a private Facebook Group discussion, several editors and reporters shared their experiences in fact-checking: who checks what, how much, and how to annotate facts.
Many of the answers were illuminating—and reassuring. (Yes, INN members do a great deal of fact-checking.) After all, nonprofit news organizations are very much part of the journalism ecosystem, even more so when they produce investigative stories.
And in the interest of sharing best business practices, we sought out permission from a few members to share a few fact-checking guidelines that help ensure accuracy and truth in their reporting.
Andy Hall, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, shared their recipe for fact-checking, which was modeled from a set of guidelines set by the Center for Public Integrity.
- Proper names – generally, any word that is routinely capitalized:
- Persons: Verify and document both spelling of name and proper title. Best sources: Website of employer; interview (note that spelling was confirmed).
- Organizations: Subject to the AP Stylebook (see “company names” and “organizations and institutions”), use the style that the organization has adopted, as far as capitalization, internal spaces, periods after letters. Best sources: the organization’s own website or spokesperson, or for businesses Hoover’s Online (http://www.hoovers.com).
- Product names and other trademarks: Verify and document spelling and ID/description. Best sources: manufacturer’s or trademark owner’s official website; International Trademark Association (see http://www.inta.org/index.php?option=com_trademarkchecklist) Nexis is not always a reliable source for spelling names – mistakes can get picked up and recirculated.
- Numbers – must be documented, in virtually every case: Ordinarily, we will identify the source – ideally, the primary source – of the information, if it is not self-evident. Best sources: government reports, Center databases (“according to the Center’s analysis”), other reports, including from research organizations, media/journalists, academics, etc.
- Scientific, technical or other specialized terms: Document the definition or explanation (which usually should be spelled out for the reader as well). Best sources: standard or authoritative reference sources, including websites.
- Details: Verify each. If we report there are three federal lawsuits, confirm there are three suits. And that all three are federal.
- Everything else: If a statement could theoretically be proven true or false, it should be documented. Some exceptions:
- Introductions or other summaries – these are “documented” by the text they summarize, which in turn is documented.
- Common knowledge – e.g., “… Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital.”