April 2 marks International Fact-Checking Day, created and celebrated by the nonprofit Poynter Institute as “an answer to concerns about the reach and impact of online misinformation.” Poynter even created a website – factcheckingday.com – with tip sheets for media consumers, course material for high school and college students, an interactive quiz, and more.
In light of today’s celebration, we thought this a good opportunity to pull back the curtain and show readers how fact-checking plays into inewsource’s process in the months, weeks, days and hours before publishing an investigation.
How we choose our stories
Typically, inewsource stories come to reporters in one of three ways: Either as a tip from someone inside or outside the newsroom, as part of covering a beat (such as health care or local government), or as a good old-fashioned gut feeling.
Fact-checking starts in this process. Tips from the public can be wrong or misleading, and can take hours to days to verify or debunk. Gut instincts can be wrong, as well.
Yet if they are verified and the potential story fits our mission – to produce investigative content that holds powerful people or institutions accountable – reporters may then dig in.
The digging in stage
The “digging in” can take several weeks to many months. A reporter spends this time researching the topic, interviewing experts, submitting public record requests to local, state or federal agencies, gathering and analyzing relevant data from private or public sources, and using their colleagues and editors as sounding boards throughout.
Fact-checking is prevalent during all of this. For example, a local newspaper relied on as part of the research process may have a subject’s name spelled wrong, or the wrong date, time, or location of an incident. To avoid repeating the mistake, inewsource reporters find a primary source of information to check against the first.
The same goes for public records. inewsource works often with primary documents from government agencies, but even the information in those documents can be wrong. We check elements in those documents with outside sources to verify it. Reporters are trained to gather these “facts” as they report. You’ll see why that’s essential when we get to the “excruciating” part below.
After the research, interviews and analyses, a reporter will begin writing. This can take days or weeks depending on the length and complexity of the story. During this process, inewsource editors work with reporters on grammar, style, clarity, fairness and context.
The excruciating part
After inewsource’s reporter and editor are finished (and happy) with the final result, there is still another day or more for a word-by-word fact check on the final draft.
To do this, the reporter is paired up with a colleague and the two sequester themselves in a room with a voluminous amount of coffee. Then, the reporter must prove to the colleague that each fact is true by producing the primary document behind it. Or if using a quote, the reporter must produce the audio clip from the taped interview. This method takes about three to four hours for a short (1,000 word) story. It can take days for longer, in-depth investigations and up to a week for stories that rely on complicated data analyses.
As an example, here’s the first paragraph from an inewsource investigation into community college remedial classes:
“Anthony Rodriguez recalled sitting in a remedial math class at Grossmont College in El Cajon bored out of his mind. The professor was teaching basic math skills that the 18-year-old had already learned in high school.”
Fact-checking this paragraph required the reporter prove her answers to the following questions:
- How do you know that’s Anthony’s name and how he spells it? (Must show driver’s license, government document or audio clip of him spelling his name)
- How do you know the class was a remedial math class? How do you know it was at Grossmont College? (Must find syllabus, interview the class teacher or have other first-hand knowledge)
- How do you know that’s how to spell Grossmont College? (Show the website and read the spelling out loud)
- How do you know the college is in El Cajon? (Show me a map or physical address on the Grossmont College website)
- How do you know Anthony was bored? (Show me where he said that in the interview)
- How do you know the professor was teaching basic math skills? (Show me the syllabus or the part of the interview where Anthony recalled the professor was teaching basic math)
- How do you know Anthony is 18? (Either show me a document with his birthday or the portion of the interview where Anthony mentions his age. Then, verify he hasn’t turned 19 by calling him the day before publication)
- How do you know Anthony already learned basic math skills in high school? (Show me his high school transcript or similar proof he had completed basic math)
As you can guess, this process is exhausting. And we’re not done! When blowback is expected (typically with investigations into government or powerful people), inewsource’s attorney examines the story within a legal framework and may recommend different word choices and contextual additions.
A few years back, we realized that we should do something with the trove of documents reporters accumulate during the fact-checking process that never see the light of day. We asked ourselves – why not make all our documentation public in a way that benefits readers and contributes to future research?
To do this, inewsource hired a developer to install a custom-made website tool. You can see it throughout almost all our major investigations as a red box near the top of the story that says, “Read this story completely backed up by primary documents – Click Here.”
If you click on the “Click Here” hyperlink, you’ll notice the text in the story changes from black to red. Those red words are now hyperlinks and if clicked on, will show you the document or similar proof behind that particular word or sentence.
As an example, take the following sentence from inewsource’s investigation into Gompers Preparatory Academy:
“Politicians, parents, philanthropists and news outlets in San Diego have praised the school’s cultural and academic transformation.”
If you “transparify” that story by clicking on the red box, the following words will become hyperlinks: “Politicians,” “parents,” “philanthropists,” “news outlets in San Diego” and “school’s cultural and academic transformation.” Clicking on any of those words will yield the document, news story or video that proves it.
While most online news sources insert hyperlinks in their stories, inewsource was the first in the country to achieve this level of transparency in 2013. Five years later and, as far as we know, we’re still the only newsroom that does it.
And that’s something worth celebrating on International Fact-Checking Day.
We’ll let you know when big things happen.