December 30, 2016 (Updated: May 4, 2023)
The media is currently engaged in a cycle of self-flagellation caused by political coverage and social media’s propensity to propagate. Whether you didn’t bother to vote or mainlined sites like Politico and 538 this year, this bout of introspection will still have potentially cataclysmic ripple effects on you as a freelancer. Moving forward, your accuracy may determine your viability as a freelancer. Here’s a crash course on how to fact check in the era of the instant news cycle.
Image via Flickr by Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com
This statement functions on two levels. One of the crucial steps in your early career as a freelancer is learning who you can trust. You want to build a vast network of quotable sources. The problem is that not everyone is reliable. Because your facts are only as good as your source, a legal term called fruit of the poisonous tree applies. Any information you gain from untrustworthy source is also untrustworthy. You must require proof that your quotes come from honest people. Otherwise, you could end up in the same mess as Rolling Stone.
The second phase of this discussion involves your own fact-checking. You need to learn where to go when you have a tricky subject whose facts are in dispute. While everyone knows about Snopes, plenty of other websites offer similar veracity authentication. Some of them have specific points of focus while others are broader in scope.
When you write about politics, two of the most important sites are Politifact.com and Factcheck.org. Given the importance and incendiary nature of political discussions, you must tread carefully in this area. The Fact Checking Project determined that misinformation is three times as prevalent as accurate facts on Twitter. Social media users spread false data like a pestilence. By using reliable sites, you’re the freelancer equivalent of antivirus software.
Even if you avoid politics, fact-checking is a bloody process at times. You may use Google to discover the accuracy of certain claims, but are you aware of Google Scholar? It queries academic papers, making it a trustworthier source of information. Another great resource is The CIA World Factbook, which covers even the most obscure details for 237 different “world entities.” Resist the urge to check Wikipedia and train yourself to search here instead.
Finally, if you plan to write about corporations on a regular basis, learn the benefits of Company Search at SEC.gov. Every publicly traded company on the planet has to post their prospectus here. You can turn yourself into an invaluable resource. Simply take the time to understand Form 10-K, the audited annual report. Once you’ve mastered this type of fact-checking, you’ll earn innumerable opportunities as a business writer.
The best way to approach any subject is by sketching out your plans ahead of time. Crafting an outline before working on the piece guarantees you will address each important point. When you have a blueprint in place, it’s easier to highlight areas where you’ll need to checks your facts carefully. Attention to detail is a hallmark of professional writing.
Unfortunately, you won’t always enjoy that sort of leeway with your writing. Even if you do, you might function as well when you plan ahead. Everyone is different, and content creation isn’t an industry where everyone attacks assignments the same way. If you do sketch out first drafts and not outlines, it’s an imperative that you mark any notation requiring fact checking. Otherwise, you’re likely to make a critical mistake. Either of these writing styles is perfectly acceptable as long as you understand the points where you cite potentially questionable facts.
One type of web-based fact-checking deserves special mention. The Wayback Machine at Archive.org captures instances of web sites dating back to the 1990s. On occasion, you can track down the verification you need by looking at previous iterations of a site. When someone claims that they started publishing in a certain years, the fact-checking process is simple.
Similarly, nothing on social media ever truly disappears, even if someone deletes it. Twitter is well aware of this fact, and that’s why they shut down a site called PostGhost. Its purpose was to archive everything verified posters tweeted. Meanwhile, a site with similar functionality called Politwoops won their battle with Twitter. Other cottage industry apps exist that perform these tasks, too. Always keep up with emerging technologies that allow you to fact-check via historical online documentation. This strategy will save you a lot of time and stress.
Do you not trust yourself to learn how to fact-check on your own? That’s no problem! Plenty of opportunities exist for freelancers to learn on the fly. Journalists who already possess this knowledge want to pass it along to novices as a professional courtesy. Google supports some of these initiatives as well.
One of their divisions, Google News Lab, funds a portion of First Draft News, a coalition of some of the finest breaking news fact-checkers on the internet. When you sign up for their mailing list, you’ll receive notifications about potential training seminars. Participating information disseminators from The Washington Post, Facebook, The New York Times, and Buzzfeed News all have contributors available for these training sessions. They’re an invaluable resource all freelancers should use.
One of the most difficult skills to develop is the ability to self-censor. Sometimes, you just don’t have a fact that you can trust, and you know it. As a writer, you’re in a frustrating place. You’ve spent time researching something, and you’re pretty sure it’s correct.
The temptation is to run with the story and hope for the best. That’s a short-sighted philosophy, though. The editors who offer you assignments and the readers whose patronage you need will notice and remember incorrect facts. To a larger point, it’s unprofessional to post something that you know isn’t definitively accurate. Sadly, you have to accept one of the harsh realities of your vocation.
Self-censoring is a needed tool for a freelancer. Yes, you’ll lose the battle, ceding a key portion of your article, but you’ll win the war. You’ll develop a reputation as an accurate writer who doesn’t cut corners. That reputation will earn you more work over the course of your career.
Freelancing is no different from any other part of humanity. You’re only as good as your word, and honesty is “the 1st chapter in the book of wisdom.” Thomas Jefferson may or may not have said this. You now have the resources at your disposal to determine whether he did.
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