- 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
The Three Models of Fact-Checking
By Brooke Borel / 5 minute read
This chapter will focus on editorial fact-checking, one of the layers of quality control you may find at a media outlet. It happens within the editorial team, using staff members or freelancers, and it involves double-checking the facts in a story before it publishes. We won’t dig into political fact-checking, which has dominated most conversations on fact-checking in recent years. Political fact-checking mostly involves looking at politicians’ claims after they’ve made it out into the world. (It’s worth noting that there are political fact-checking groups that do check claims regarding science, including FactCheck.org’s SciCheck feature and Snopes.com.)
In American magazines, formal editorial fact-checking seems to have first appeared in the 1920s. Time launched a fact-checking system in 1923, and The New Yorker reportedly started its fact-checking department several years later. The practice gradually expanded across print magazines, although for decades fact-checking was considered women’s work — important but largely unrecognized.
Today, although fact-checkers are more diverse than they used to be, the practice is still often overlooked or poorly understood. The job did get noticed in the 2014 book Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion, in which David Zweig profiles people who do jobs that are important but go largely unnoticed — unless they make a grave mistake. (Such people also include structural engineers, interpreters at the United Nations, and orchestral piano tuners.)
Editorial fact-checking has even managed to break into the broader public conversation here and there, making it into Hollywood movies such as Bright Lights, Big City (1988), Almost Famous (2000), and Shattered Glass (2003). And in 2018, fact-checking arrived on Broadway in the adaptation of the 2012 book The Lifespan of a Fact.
The fact-checker checks everything in a near-finished piece, which includes individual facts as well as the big picture.
Although hard data on fact-checking in journalism are hard to find, a 2018 report I wrote, with the help of a team of researchers and a fact-checker, for the Knight Science Journalism Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, looked at the practice within science journalism. The report synthesized 91 interviews and 301 surveys with editors, fact-checkers, journalists, and journalism professors and found, among other things, that only 34 percent of outlets that cover science use dedicated fact-checkers.
The report also clarified the three modern models of fact-checking. In the magazine model, fact-checkers often hold positions that are apart from the writers and journalists, editors and copy editors. The fact-checker checks everything in a near-finished piece, which includes individual facts as well as the big picture. For the latter, the fact-checker may ask, Does the narrative make sense? Does it obscure the truth in some way? Does the evidence support the thesis? Are there errors of omission? To confirm the discrete facts, as well as how they hang together, the fact-checker combs through the writer’s source material and may re-interview the people who appear in the piece. The fact-checker will often uncover new sources to help prove or disprove a claim.
Today the magazine model isn’t used only in print magazines. The approach is common across media — from print to digital magazines to podcasts to video — particularly for long and complex stories including narratives, long-form, packages, and investigations, as well as stories of any length that are legally sensitive.
But a lot of publications don’t have fact-checkers to do this work. That doesn’t mean these publications don’t verify the information they publish. Rather, they are more likely on the newspaper model, in which journalists are responsible for double-checking their own facts. This model still has safety nets. Editors are supposed to push back when they read a claim that doesn’t sound quite right, while copy editors — in cases where the job still exists — check basic facts, including spelling, titles, and geographic locations. But the process is not necessarily line-by-line or systematic. Rather, it’s up to the journalist to figure out the process and make sure it’s done right.
The fact-checker, presumably, will not be as emotionally invested in a story as the people who put it together to begin with. The extra eyes can translate to fewer corrections — and the legal liabilities that may come with them.
As the name suggests, the newspaper model is common to most newspapers. But it’s also found across other media, from short items on radio and television to brief online news.
Both the magazine and the newspaper models have advantages. The magazine model can help catch errors that the newspaper model simply won’t. Although no one is truly objective, including journalists, having a separate person fact-check can add fresh, skeptical eyes, to help a piece of journalism approach objectivity. The fact-checker, presumably, will not be as emotionally invested in a story as the people who put it together to begin with. The extra eyes can translate to fewer corrections — and the legal liabilities that may come with them.
But the magazine model takes money and time. The newspaper model, for most stories, won’t cost as much, so it’s helpful for short or simple pieces that don’t call for a big investment. It is also nimbler, which means breaking news and other fast-paced stories can be published more quickly.
Increasingly, in order to adapt to digital publishing and the financial uncertainties of modern journalism, some publications are using a hybrid model for fact-checking. In the hybrid model, publications use the newspaper approach for stories that are time-sensitive or relatively short and simple, saving the more intensive magazine approach for more complex pieces. The hybrid model allows publications to allocate fact-checking resources where they are needed most while freeing reporters to keep up with breaking news.