- How Science Works
- Sources and Experts: Where to Find Them and How to Vet Them
- Making Sense of Science Stats
- Editing for Story
- Editing Controversial Science
- Holding Science to Account
- Covering Health Care
- Climate and the Environment
- Fact-Checking Science Journalism: How to Make Sure Your Stories Are True
Illustrating Complex Science Stories
- The Role of Visuals in Science Journalism
- The Process of Building Science-Centric Graphics
- Strategies for Using Visuals to Put Breaking Science in Context
- Special Considerations for Data Visualization
- Uncertainty and Misinformation
- Editorial Illustration, Photography, and Moving Images
- Additional Reading and Resources
- About the Author
- Social Media and Reader Engagement
- Popular Science
- Op-Eds and Essays
- About This Handbook
Setting Up a Fact-Checking System
By Brooke Borel / 3 minute read
Some science editors will land at a publication that already has a fact-checking system. But if you find yourself at a publication that doesn’t have such a system, and you have the interest — and the budget — to set one up, here are some things to consider.
First: Think about your group’s editorial process. How many editors typically look at a writer’s draft? How much time do you usually have between when a story is assigned and when you want to publish? Also: What kinds of stories do you typically publish — mostly quick, newsy items, or mostly long, complex narratives, or a mix?
Always make sure to run the final draft by the writer for a final review before publishing the story. I have had editors publish without getting the chance to do a final fact-check only to discover too late that errors had been introduced.Kendra Pierre-Louis, climate reporter
No matter how big your team is, or how quickly you plan to turn around stories, the fact-checking should go close to the end of the editing process. Of course, everyone on the team should report, write, and edit with an eye toward facts and verification. But the line-by-line fact-check will be most effective if it happens after the story is more or less in its final form. If you have only one editor look at a story before it publishes, then the fact-check should come after that editor feels the story’s structure is in place and all of the editor’s questions are answered. And if you have a whole line of editors — an assigning editor, an outside editor, a top editor — the fact-check should happen after the top editor has finished with it. (Of course, at least one editor will also typically look at a story after the fact-check, to make final changes and confirm that everything is in place.)
3 Things to Watch Out For
A fact-check usually turns up at least a handful of errors — typos, garbled quotes, a claim that doesn’t have the appropriate caveat. But the worst case is a fact-checker’s turning up something that shakes the foundation of a story. Editors can avert such a story-killing fate long before the work goes to the checker by keeping an eye out for:
- False balance: If a story gives a lot of play to an outlandish-sounding theory or a contrarian opinion, ask: Based on the direction of the scientific literature on this subject, is there actual evidence to support this point of view? Example: A feature story on researchers who say they have proven that climate change isn’t happening, when most other research says the opposite.
- Big claims: Always kick the tires when the writer makes a sweeping statement, especially if the writer doesn’t cite a source. Ask: Where did this come from? What other research or experts support or refute it? Example: An unsupported claim like: “The Covid-19 crisis will eventually infect at least 300 million people worldwide.”
- Single-source claims: Does it sound as if the writer is basing some pretty important stuff on a single person or paper? If so, ask for the sourcing. If it seems thin, tell the writer that a fact-check will require corroboration — and that it’s needed now. Example: A story that accuses a scientist of fraud, but the only evidence supporting the claim is a quote from another scientist.
As for the mix of content at your publication: If you publish mostly long, complicated stories, you probably want to follow the magazine model. If you publish mostly short items, breaking news, and other quick pieces, you should probably stick with the newspaper model. And if you publish a little bit of everything, you might want either the magazine model or the hybrid model, depending on your budget.
Next: If you’ve come this far and have decided that, yes, you need to set up a magazine-style or hybrid fact-checking system, here are some key steps:
- Make sure everyone on your team, including freelancers, understands how stories make their way through the editorial process — and how and when fact-checking takes place.
- Alert your writers, including freelancers, about the types of material you will collect from them for the fact-check. Many publications include this information in their freelancer contracts.
- Provide clear guidelines to your fact-checkers. (Some publications have in-house documents describing this practice; others prefer not to keep written instructions.)
- Decide whether you are following a magazine or hybrid model. If the latter, designate which types of stories will fall under the magazine or newspaper approaches.
- Designate someone on staff to oversee the fact-checking team. This could be a research editor, a managing editor, a copy editor, or any other team member who can keep the process moving thoroughly and efficiently.
- Hire fact-checkers, as either staff members or freelancers.
- Incorporate fact-checking into your publication schedule.
- Make sure to fact-check not only story text but also anything else that you publish, including headlines and subheads, photographs and captions, illustrations, infographics, and video clips.
And even if you decide to stick with the newspaper model, make sure your team — again, including freelancers — understands the process and the expectations. When possible, give your writers time to fact-check their work before their stories are published.