Learn How to Become a Fact Checker

The New Yorker Cover Illustration Of Obama And Wife Provokes Controversy
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A fact checker, as you might guess, goes over stories to ensure the facts check out. A fact checker will often work in a research department at a magazine or for a TV news show.

Fact checking is one of those oft-discussed jobs within the industry that many people outside of the media world don’t know too much about. The main thing a fact-checker does is go over a story meticulously to confirm all the facts within it.

This means confirming everything from a subject’s age to what they’ve said.

How Fact Checkers Ensure Accuracy

In order to ensure an article’s accuracy, a fact checker must rely on two skills: independent research and, to an extent, reporting skills. If a reporter makes an assertion in a story -- for example, Christopher Columbus came to America in 1492 -- a fact checker needs to confirm this is true.

To do so they’ll need to research the facts and, if need be, make calls to confirm those facts. (If a fact checker was, say, confirming the title of a person mentioned in a story, they would not simply Google that title. Instead, they would call that person, or the company the person works for, to get the information.)

The other big thing a fact-checker does is talk to sources. A fact checker needs to make sure that everything a reporter says someone said was, in fact, said. This means calling sources who’ve been quoted in a piece or paraphrased and going over their statements with them.

Where a Fact Checker's Skill Comes In

If a fact checker’s job sounds easy, it’s not. There is actually quite a bit of skill involved, especially for talking to sources. Aside from needing good research skills -- and having an instinct for knowing when a fact has actually been confirmed -- a fact checker needs to be able to confirm details with a source without watering down, or altering, the story itself.

This can be very tricky.

Because a journalist’s job is often about getting someone to say something they might not want to say, a fact checker needs to be wary of sources changing their minds after the fact. Often, when you give a source the opportunity to go back over what they’ve said, they might wish they had said things differently and try to change their original comment. A fact checker wants to make sure this doesn’t happen but still ensure a quote or characterization is accurate.

To illustrate the artistry involved in fact-checking, an example might help. Let’s say you’re fact checking a story about a murder, a husband killing his wife, in a quiet suburban neighborhood. The story has a quote from the couple’s neighbor that goes like this: “I always thought Rob was nuts.” Now that’s a very strong statement. When you’re fact-checking that quote with the neighbor, you want to be careful not to give him the opportunity to change what he said.

How do you do this? It can be tricky. People often say fact checkers should not read a source their quote directly. (After all, if you say to the neighbor: “Did you say, ‘I always thought Rob was nuts’?” The neighbor might very well respond that he doesn’t think Rob is nuts.

He thinks Rob might be unhinged, maybe, but not nuts.) The fact checker finally needs to make this call. Often the fact checker will need to go back and forth with a source and much of the conversation might entail pointing out the difference between what a source thinks now and what a source said then.

Reporters Still Need to Check Facts

The quick answer to this question is, yes. Fact checkers don’t exist so that reporters can be lazy. They exist as a second line of defense to ensure that mistakes don’t. On a legal front fact checkers also exist so that, should someone get angry and threaten to sue over something in a story, a publication has multiple people who can back up the veracity of the facts.

If, for example, a source claims they were misquoted in a piece and threatens to sue over it, it’s better to have a reporter (who hopefully has the comment recorded) to confirm it was said as well as a fact checker who can say they also confirmed it.

How Mistakes Still Get In Even with Fact Checkers

Fact checkers don’t exist at every level of the media. While most magazines employ fact checkers, newspapers, and book publishers do not. Journalists working for a daily paper must fact check their own work and then rely on their editor, hopefully, to catch any errors.

This doesn’t of course, always happen. Book publishers also don’t have research departments and they rely on authors to present factual accounts of their works. While both newspapers and book publishers are very vigilant about libel, they don’t spend the money or allow for the extra time, it would take to fact check what they publish.

Fact Checking Scandals

One of the biggest scandals to highlight the fact that book publishers do not fact check was what happened with James Frey and his drug addiction memoir, A Million Little Pieces. A memoir is, by definition, factual: It’s a non-fiction account of someone’s life story.

While the tag insinuates that the facts are informed by memory, the work should not significantly mutate or alter the timeline or events in a person’s life. Published in 2003, the book was a huge hit for publisher Doubleday (an imprint of Random House) and really took off after being selected for Oprah’s book club.

Then, in 2006, tabloid website thesmokinggun.com released a report that Frey had made up huge chunks of his story, exaggerating his criminal record and the depravity to which he sank during his years as an addict. The story blew up and left many in the media questioning why book publishers do not fact check their books. Stories like this one in the Wall Street Journal surfaced addressing that very question.

Other scandals which have surfaced, that touch on fact checking more indirectly, deal with reporters fabricating sources. Famously  Stephen Glass at The New Republic and Jayson Blair at The New York Times are two reporters who were both at the center of scandals in which they made up sources and quotes.

Interestingly, in this season of the HBO show The Wire -- the show is set in Baltimore and the focus of this season is the media -- that very thing is being dramatized. (The show involves a plot in which a reporter is beginning to fabricate quotes in order to get better stories.)