How to fact-check as a journalist

‘Post-truth’ was Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year and Collins Dictionary chose ‘fake news’ for 2017. In 2021, the rise of misinformation is more threatening than ever, and journalists are at the forefront of the battle against it.

Fact-checking has always been an essential skill for journalists – the world looks to the press for the truth on everything from politics to celebrity news.

But why is tackling misinformation so important? And how do you fact-check as a journalist?

We spoke to News Associates graduates Sarah Turnnidge and Abbas Panjwani, who now work for Full Fact, the UK’s leading fact-checking charity.

Why is fact-checking so important?

Exposes false information

Particularly in the age of social media, false claims can circulate far and wide online and are often accepted as true by members of the public despite a lack of evidence. Journalists have a duty to debunk these myths.

Sarah said: “As the pandemic has shown, bad information ruins lives. As fact checkers, every day we see false claims damage people’s health, promote division and hate, and undermine democracy.”

Holds power to account

An accurate press is fundamental to democracy as it provides the public with the details needed to make informed political decisions, as well as challenging the claims made by those in positions of power.

Sarah said: “Currently, those who wish to spread false information have too easy a time of it. It’s important politicians, public figures and journalists are aware of fact checking, so they know they can’t get away with sharing false information.

“There’s a perception that people in positions of power can say whatever they want without consequences, but fact checking can really challenge that and hopefully eventually lead to a shift towards more honest public conversations.”

How do you fact-check as a journalist?

Do your background research

Start as you mean to go on! Fact-checking should be your first step in developing a story.

Sarah said: “I also always try to make sure I know the specific topic inside-out before I start writing. It can be quite overwhelming trying to get to grips with all the background information, especially if it’s a complicated topic you don’t know much about, but reaching out to colleagues, academics or organisations who specialise in whatever you’re looking at really helps.”

Attention to detail

Detail is a journalist’s best friend – one incorrect fact or statistic could erode trust in you and your publication, so always make sure you double-check your information.

Abbas said: “In terms of how to fact-check, it’s vital to read carefully. A statistic might have been reported in a newspaper in a certain way, but when you go back to the original source, it may have referred to something subtly, but crucially different.”

Sarah added: “When I’m writing I always try to imagine I’m explaining the facts to someone who knows nothing about the topic and make sure the language I use is accessible as possible—there’s no point writing a fact check that can only be understood by experts in that topic.” 

Be prepared to fact-check yourself

It’s important to recognise journalists can also make mistakes, so be ready to carefully proofread your copy and take on board feedback from your colleagues and editors.

Abbas said: “Fact-checking applies to your own work too. If something has been phrased in a particular way when it comes to you, make sure you don’t accidentally introduce errors when turning that into copy.”

Sarah agreed: “We’re all human, and we all get things wrong from time to time. But when that does happen, it’s also important that journalists are prepared to correct the record.”

Scrutinise your sources and their motivations

Never blindly accept what someone is telling you – try to find additional sources to back their claims up and question the motivations behind them.

Abbas said: “Above all, be sceptical. Imagine you’re trying to discredit the person making the claim, trying to find holes in their sources and methods.

“Twitter can be particularly useful for finding experts who probably already know the pitfalls and problems surrounding a certain claim.  If the argument still stands up after that, then the story’s probably real.”

What are the best fact-checking organisations?

Full Fact The UK’s leading fact-checking charity exposes false information and provides specific techniques to identify misleading images, video, survey data and crime figures.

First Draft NewsAn organisation fighting to tackle misinformation online by carrying out research and providing training and resources to journalists

BBC Reality CheckThe BBC set up Reality Check to debunk fake news and provide simple and fact-checked answers to questions surrounding the biggest stories of the day.

Now you know how to fact-check, you should try your hand at being a journalist with one of our free interactive workshops! Sign up here.