We’ve long been told not to believe everything we read. But it may be nearing the point where it can feel tough to believe any of it. Truth and accuracy have in many cases been usurped by speed and quantity — or simply ignored to push an agenda or earn more clicks.
Here’s the thing: No matter how much misinformation, disinformation, or straight-up malarkey is out there, you don’t have to add to the mix. You can instead soar high above it with a truthful, accurate copy that can stand its ground no matter what. And you do that by perfecting your fact-checking process.
Although fact-checking can feel tedious and time-consuming, it’s well worth the effort. Publishing content that’s packed with inaccuracies can mangle your reputation, weaken your credibility and drive away your prospects, readers, and fans.
Here you’ll find a fact-checking checklist that gives you a solid place to start, along with a number of examples and a list of fact-checking FAQs to keep you moving forward.
Surface Layer of Facts
- Names, titles, place names, location
- Numbers, statistics
- Time, distance
- Date, season
- Physical descriptions
- Superlatives: only, first, most, world’s best
Deeper Layer of Facts
- Historical facts
- Facts upon which arguments and the piece’s premise are based
Fact-Checking Checklist Details
Surface Layer of Facts
The surface layer of facts is typically the easier and more obvious things to verify.
Names, Titles, Place Names
Let’s say your article talks about MightyMan cactus manager John Parks, who lives and works at 101 Jones Street in Paris.
You have a number of facts to check:
- The name of the company: Mightyman, which may really be Mighty Man, MightyMan, or even MightyMen. Additional words could also be part of the company name. A quick look tells you the full name of the company is MightyMan Garden Center.
- His title: You may find he’s not the current cactus manager, but the former cactus manager who is now the houseplant, fertilizer, and clay pot manager.
- His name: As straightforward as the spelling of “John Parks” may seem, he may prefer to go by Jonathan. Or his last name could have a spelling like Parcs.
- Location: He may live at 101 Jones Street, but he works next door at 103 Jones Street. And you need to clarify that his home and work are located in Paris, Texas, not Paris, France.
MightyMan Garden Center has been in business for 10 years, and they have 982 varieties of houseplants available at any given time. Their garden center easily captures 92% of the plant market, making $1 million per year selling houseplants.
Here you have several numbers and additional details to verify:
- 10 years in business: The marketing materials say the garden center has been in business for 10 years — but those materials were written six years ago. To avoid having to consistently update or clarify the exact number of years in business, you can say he’s been in business more than 10 years — or mention the year the company was founded.
- 982 varieties of houseplants: Again, the exact number may change with availability or other factors. Stating “nearly 1,000 varieties of houseplants” works, as does stating “more than 950” — provided that’s the number of houseplants only, and not the grand total of all the indoor and outdoor plants in the center.
- 92% of the plant market: Says who? Back this one up with industry data.
- $1 million per year selling houseplants: Again, says who? Financial records can verify this number. Make sure that’s the amount earned from houseplants only, and not from houseplants and outdoor plants, or houseplants and everything else the garden center sells.
Time, Distance, Date, Season
The garden center opens at 6 a.m. every morning during the growing season. Most employees can get to work in about five minutes.
A few things to verify here:
- 8 a.m. during the growing season: That may be accurate, but it may not mean much to readers unless they know when the growing season is. Try something like, “While the garden center opens at 10 a.m. during cooler weather, it opens at 6 a.m. during the April-to-September growing season.”
- About five minutes: Where do most employees live in relation to the garden center? How many is “most”? Does it take five minutes to walk, run, ride a bike or drive? Why are you telling readers this? Because the center opens so early? Make the connection clear.
Physical Descriptions, Superlatives
When you walk into the garden center, you’re always embraced by the sweet smell of soil and the bold red hues of blooming azaleas. It’s the most magnificent experience, leaving no doubt it truly is the world’s best garden center.
Here we go with this one:
- Always…sweet smell of soil and the bold red hues: Is this always what visitors can expect to experience, even during the non-growing season? Clarify when this type of experience may happen, steering clear of “always.” Also, some may not find soil sweet. Perhaps the “rich” smell of soil is more accurate.
- Most magnificent experience: Says who? Why not try something like, “It may be a magnificent experience for plant lovers….”
- World’s best garden center: Since “best” is subjective, this is more of an opinion than a fact. And how would you verify this one, anyway? If “World’s best garden center” is the tagline, you can clarify with something like, “…which bills itself as the ‘World’s best garden center….’”
Deeper Layer of Facts
The deeper layer of facts can take more time and effort to research. It’s up to you to determine how deep you want to go. Just remember if you don’t fact-check, someone else just might. And those that do tend to take great joy in loudly pointing out all the wrongs in any given piece of content.
Houseplants can purify your home’s air, with a recent NASA study recommending one plant for every 100 square feet of living space.
This is information you picked up from several blogs out there. Sounds good, right? Too bad the info can’t be verified:
- Houseplants can purify your home’s air: This information is actually debatable. To get yourself off the hook for making the statement, you can add something like, “Some people believe…” or “It’s been widely published that….”
- Recent NASA study: When you go to look for this study, you find it was published in 1989. Nothing recent about that.
- One plant per 100 square feet: The study does not mention a recommendation for the number of houseplants at all. As you continue to dig for the information, you find the study’s main researcher wrote a book several years later. His book appears to mention a recommendation, but it’s two plants per 100 square feet — not one.
Historical Facts, Quotes
“Plants make people happy and healthy,” Parks said. “You know that’s why dinosaurs became extinct: there was no plant life on earth.”
Historical fact-checking tell you plants and dinosaurs were around at the same time. But now you have this quote to deal with.
Quotes can be fact-checked for two things:
- That the person actually said what they’re quoted as saying.
- That what they’re saying is true.
- “Plants make people happy and healthy”: Yes, Parks said it. Although plants may not be everyone’s cup of tea, you could let this one stand in his own words as his opinion. Especially since there are studies (more recent than 1989, even) that back up the positive effects of plants.
- “Dinosaurs became extinct…no plant life”: Tough call here. Yes, Parks said it. But it’s not 100% known why dinosaurs became extinct. And there was plenty of plant life on earth when they roamed. So now what?
The easy fix would be to leave out the dinosaur quote.
Another option would be to contact Parks to discuss the quote. Ask him to clarify what he meant since there is evidence of plant life on earth during the time of dinosaurs. Maybe he was kidding and it’s one of his go-to jokes?
If that’s the case, you can run it with a clarification. Perhaps something like: “Although Parks is well-aware of the plant life that existed in the time of dinosaurs, he likes to joke about this to emphasize his opinion that life without plants would be no life at all.”
Other Facts and Bias
When facts show up in paraphrases, as the crux of an argument, or anywhere else in the content, you’ll be doing yourself and your readers a huge favor if you take the time to fact-check.
Make sure you look for the same information in more than one source, and always find the original source if possible. Instead of looking at so-called facts as facts until you prove them wrong, start looking at them as suspects until you prove them right.
Be wary of what sources you use, as bias has become a way of life for certain outlets. Read the about page to get a feel for the type of publication you’re referencing. Find at least one other source with the same information. Look for subtle and not-so-subtle biases or omissions, such as slanted statistics and quotes that were taken out of context.
Fact-Checking FAQs: What Else You Need to Know
Do I have to add links to every piece of information I verify?
No, but being transparent about where you got your information is important. Some newspapers, for instance, used to require at least two named sources for every story. Include links to sources when warranted. This typically means when:
- Readers can use the source for more information.
- You’re publishing statistics, numbers, or information that is not common knowledge.
- You want to give credit where credit is due.
Where do I look to verify facts?
Where you look depends on what you’re looking for. In general, good sources of information include:
- Company websites, marketing materials, and financial records
- The original source of information, not a blog that took it from another blog
- Industry publications
- Data portals for state, federal, and municipal organizations
- Government reports
- Court documents
- Academic research
- Databases in libraries
- Statistica.com or Data.gov
- Reaching out to industry experts
- Fact-checking sites just to see if info has already been verified or debunked
How deep do I have to fact-check?
The depth you go is up to you. At the very least, you want to make sure all the surface facts are checked for every article. You can then prioritize based on importance.
The most important facts to verify are those that could create trouble if proven wrong. This includes incorrect information that could:
- Damage your reputation and credibility.
- Embarrass your company or get you sued.
- Destroy the entire premise of the piece.
Who should do the fact-checking?
That again is up to you. You can hire a freelancer or assign an intern to fact-check, or make it part of your editor’s duties. Just make sure you compensate your editors for the extra time and effort involved.
How can we make fact-checking less arduous?
Several tactics can make fact-checking faster and easier.
- Make someone responsible. If no one is assigned the responsibility, guess what? No one is going to do it.
- Make it routine. The more you get into the habit of fact-checking, the smoother it will go.
- Make it consistent. Create a document that outlines how deep and thorough your fact-checking needs to be, then put it into play for everything you have written.
- Have your writers note specific details about their information sources, such as the exact paragraph in an article or the timestamp on a video.
- For lower priority items that don’t impact the overall gist of the story, go for factual correctness instead of exacting detail. For instance, if you could verify that John Parks was a manager but couldn’t verify the exact title of “houseplant, fertilizer, and clay pot manager,” you could simply list him as a manager within the company.
What if information can’t be verified?
Best practices would say when in doubt, leave it out. Another option would be to include it with a disclaimer. Let’s say you’re trying to verify the $1 million in sales netted by MightyMan Garden Center.
Look for the information on the company website and marketing materials, financial records, and company records. If the company doesn’t want to share the documents to verify the accuracy, you can handle it in a couple of different ways:
- You could leave it out.
- You could write something like: “Although the exact amount could not be verified by financial records, Parks said the company makes at least $1 million per year in overall plant sales.”
Summing It Up
The more you get into fact-checking, the easier it will be to ferret out the inaccuracies. You may start to notice you can spot an inaccuracy from a mile away. You may also start to feel them in your gut, especially with content that’s purposely written to get a rise out of the audience. Your content, on the other hand, will be written to relay accurate and truthful information — the only type of content published by trusted and admired brands. Build trust and admiration with content written, edited, or fact-checked by the freelance talent at WriterAccess. Start now with a free trial.