Monday, November 24th, 2014

7 steps to better fact-checking

Need ideas for where to start your research? We have some. (iStock photo)
Need ideas for where to start your research? We have some. (iStock photo)

We often get questions from journalists, educators, students and voters about how we do our work. If you want to fact-check something, where do you start?

Fact-checking isn’t so different from traditional journalism, but it does have a different outlook, specifically, a relentless focus on evidence. When you’re fact-checking, your goal is to uncover all the evidence.

Over the years, we’ve worked out some super-charged search strategies. When we’re on the hunt for evidence, we use a checklist to make sure we don’t miss anything. While every fact-check is different, you can use the same techniques to ferret out facts and get to the truth.

Here, then, is an adapted version of our checklist for use with any type of journalistic fact-checking.

1. Ask the person making the claim for evidence.

This is basic, but we find it’s often the best place to start. We find that when people make factual statements, even if they’re speaking completely off the cuff, they will usually be able to tell you that they got the claim from somewhere. People tend not to make up statements out of thin air, even inaccurate ones.

Consider the evidence you get from speakers as a tip sheet. Once you have it, you can look for other evidence that contradicts it or confirms it. Also, it’s basic fairness to tell someone you’re fact-checking them, so they can give their side of the story.

2. Look for what other fact-checkers have found before you.

We all like to be original, but it’s rare to be the absolute first fact-checker looking at a claim. More often than not, someone else has researched and written what you’re investigating, or at least something similar.

At PolitiFact, we check our archive of more than 8,000 fact-checks to see what we’ve written on a given topic. We also look at the work of our friends at Factcheck.org, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker, Snopes and other fact-checking sites -- and we credit appropriately. We will look at what they found and then verify the evidence for ourselves. We’ll also pursue other ideas and angles on an issue to see if there’s even more to be found on the topic.

3. Do a Google search -- and then search again.

Yes, a Google search is basic, but Google’s algorithm is powerful. If you start typing in a few words, watch carefully to see what terms Google suggests. Google’s advanced search settings allow you to look at specific sites and time periods.

Don’t settle for typing in just one or two queries. Search using as many different combinations as you can. If we’re writing about something like climate change, we might search on "climate change," "global warming," "carbon emissions," "carbon capture," "electricity,"  "EPA regulations," and "cap and trade."

Challenge yourself to learn how to use Google’s search operators so you can look by file type (file:pdf) or domain name (site:politifact.com). It takes a little time to learn Google’s advanced capabilities, but it’s well worth it.

4. Search the Deep Web.

What is the Deep Web? The Deep Web includes areas of the Internet that aren’t open to surface searching. This usually means databases and subscription sites. Here at PolitiFact, we use paid databases like Lexis Nexis and CQ to search for congressional votes, public comments or news reports that can be decades old. We use the database Critical Mention to search TV shows and their closed captions. And we use the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine (it’s free) to find older information that people have pulled down from the Web.

Keep in mind that new databases are coming online all the time, so don’t assume that what wasn’t there yesterday isn’t there today. (This is true for Google results, too.)

Can’t afford to pay for a subscription site? Check your local public library. Many libraries offer access to commercial databases if you simply key in your library card with a pin code.

5. Look for experts with different perspectives.

Experts can point you to research you might not find on your own, and they often give important context to research you already found. Experts can often save you from making wrong assumptions about complicated topics.

Make sure to ask experts to help you find more experts. Great questions to ask are, "Is there anyone whose opinion you respect that might disagree with you?" or, "Is there anyone you would recommend who’s considered the authority on this issue?"

In politics, because we have a two-party system, we often reduce issues to two sides. But the world is more complicated than that, and you should look for more than two sides to any specific controversy or issue. Experts can really help you move beyond black-and-white views of issues to portray a spectrum of complexity.

6. Check out some books.

You might not have time to read a whole book on a tight deadline, but searching Amazon can help you find authors to interview. Amazon’s "search inside the book" can help you look up quotes or find explanations of technical terms. The website WorldCat.org can find the book and tell you which library it’s in that is closest to you. Then there are ebooks; buy them from a vendor or look for free downloads from the Internet Archive or your local library.

Whether on paper or an electronic tablet, books are a content-rich information source.

7. Anything else?

You’ve probably heard the expression, "If I only knew then what I know now …."

Well, when it comes to fact-checking, after you’ve gone through the points above, you’ll know a lot more about the topic you're investigating.

That’s when you need to take a break, circle back, and ask yourself these questions: "What else haven’t I looked at? Whom else could I talk to? What other angle should I be considering?" Taking a break to think through the process can often unlock the door to the final, critical piece of information that will ensure fact-checking success.