This post comes at the suggestion of Dr. Karla Kitalong, my former thesis director at University of Central Florida, now teaching at Michigan Technical University. She requested that I discuss fact checking, which is something I’ve had to do as a technical writer and journalist. In this world of alternative facts and “fake news” (however you choose to define it), the process can be tricky, especially when even professional fact checkers can be caught slanting things. Where do you start?
Fact Checking vs. Researching
Fact checking is what I would call more-zealous-than-usual research. The purpose of fact checking, of course, is to verify that a particular statement or set of statements in your document accurately reflects reality or even that elusive creature, The Truth.
If you’re writing an internal document about your own organization’s products, services, or procedures, you can usually trust those items as primary sources. Fact checking usually creeps up as a need when you’re making a statement or assertion about the world outside your organization. In journalism circles, the usual “rule” I’ve seen–and the one I was expected to follow at Spaceflight Insider–was to have at least two, but preferably three different authoritative or trustworthy sources corroborate a statement.
For example, as a NASA contractor, I once spent the better part of a day seeking documentary evidence for the assertion that “Every dollar spent by the government on space results in seven dollars of economic activity in the private sector.” This is a nifty factoid that NASA people have often cited. However, if you’re a nit-picker like me, you want to get at the actual source of those numbers. Was there an economic impact report somewhere that would back them up? If there was, I couldn’t find it. It was therefore my sad duty to suggest to my customer that he not cite that particular “fact” in his talk.
In other situations, when I was developing a set of fact pages for rockets in the space launch industry, I would sometimes have to use the dreaded “N/A” (Not Available) in my reports because I could not confirm a payload or engine performance number. Better to leave it out than wing it or fake it!
Sources by Reliability
I’m probably naive in my trust of some of the organizations below, but for goodness sake, you have to start somewhere. When in doubt, as your leader or editor if they consider them trustworthy and, if not, why.
Original data sources
You could be working for a scientific, engineering, or other firm and need to cite specific data points, performance numbers, or experiment outcomes. In those cases, you might need to reach out to the original individuals who did the work and generated the data. That data could appear in a specialized scientific or technical journal; online archive; or reputable, general-readership publication such as Nature or Scientific American. Other times, you might need to contact (interview, email, call, send a formal letter) to the originator for a copy of their original data. It’s hard to get more authoritative than that, unless you have people in your organization who were the originators.
Government reports and statistics
During the NASA fact-checking exercise, I sifted through government and industry reports and documents seeking confirmation. Government agencies are charged with collecting accurate data on this or that aspect of our national life so that leaders can make (ideally) decisions based on facts. There are penalties for lying, too.
Industry reports, studies, and statistics
Industry organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Satellite Industry Association, or the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) exist to advocate the interests of their members. They collect statistics on those members for marketing and lobbying purposes to demonstrate the value or impact of those members to the public, the economy, and so forth. Accuracy is important to them because they need to back up their activities with facts. You can also email or call companies for details about their hardware. Sometimes they’ll answer, sometimes the answer is proprietary or classified.
Reports from reputable news sources
This is a tricky one because political biases can affect one’s perceptions of the objectivity or bias of a particular news organization. That said, the reporting of facts is usually expected to result from direct observation or include three-source corroboration. The chart below is worth considering if you find yourself seeking data on politically charged events.
Whom Do You NOT Trust?
I wrote about how to recognize cranks in scientific and technical matters earlier this year. The following behaviors or language should be considered “red flags” in your fact-checking efforts:
- Extraordinary claims without evidence.
- Claims that their ideas or results are “unprecedented,” “controversial,” “miraculous,” “transformative,” or “life changing.”
- Claims that the author’s research has been “suppressed” by the mainstream of the profession, the government, or some other powerful cabal of powers.
- Claims of “secret insight” without proof.
- Claiming “professional” or “scientific” backing of the ideas without citing the names of the individuals, organizations (companies, universities, laboratories, etc.), or publications.
- Accusations of jealousy, corruption, or other ulterior motives against anyone (reputable or otherwise) who denies the author’s claims.
- No connections/links to or grounding in mainstream research.
- Anonymous posting out of fear of retribution from the aforementioned powerful organizations.
Can I Use Wikipedia?
Wikipedia is not considered an authoritative source for most work. That said, it is a good starting point for your research. You can get a good overview of a topic and, potentially, links to more reputable primary sources. Otherwise, no, don’t cite Wikipedia as a fact-checking source.
Again, if you have doubts about including a “fact” in your work, don’t.