Category Archives: Journalism

My talk about fact-checking

The Editors Guild recorded my talk about fact-checking last night and posted it to their YouTube channel, so you can watch it here:

Here’s a link to the PDF handout I prepared and refer to in my talk, with links to selected resources and information about fact-checking:

As I noted in the meeting description, fact-checking is about ensuring that a piece of writing and its sources are accurate, fair, and credible, and protecting writers and publications from errors, criticism, fraud, and lawsuits. I talked about the skills it requires (an obsession with accuracy, skepticism, critical thinking, the ability to do research and find and evaluate sources, and a willingness to ask questions), who does it, why it’s so rare these days and what types of publications/media generally do or don’t do it. I described the fact-checking process for a major magazine feature, what kinds of things you check and particular trouble spots, discussed some cautionary tales, gave fact-checking tips, and answered questions from the audience.

Let me know if you have any comments or questions. I’d also like to know if there’s any interest in me writing about or teaching classes on fact-checking, research, information literacy, or other topics.

For further reading on these and other subjects, browse my website/blog and my Twitter feed.

I’ll be speaking about fact-checking on November 14th

I’ll be speaking about fact-checking at the November 14th meeting of the Northwest Independent Editors Guild in Seattle:

Fact-Checking: Don’t Assume Anything

Whether editing fiction, nonfiction, corporate documents, or magazine articles, some responsibility falls upon the editor to verify the facts. Fact-checking is about ensuring that a piece of writing and its sources are accurate, fair, and credible in order to protect authors and publishers from errors, criticism, fraud, and lawsuits. Lisa Gold, a fact-checker and researcher, will discuss various aspects of fact-checking, offer tips and resources, and explain why you should be skeptical about everything you read.

Speaker Bio: Lisa Gold is a freelance researcher, fact-checker, and writer. She has fact-checked magazine articles, reported features, narrative essays, book reviews, historical novels, nonfiction books, and other types of writing. She’s been a member of the Northwest Independent Editors Guild since 2005. You’ll find Lisa online at and on Twitter at @bylisagold.

The meeting is open to all–you don’t have to be an Editors Guild member to attend–and begins at 6:30pm in the Wallingford neighborhood. Details are on the Editors Guild website (click on the November 14th meeting to see the info and map). If you can’t attend, my talk and Q&A may be recorded and posted on the Editors Guild YouTube page.

If you’re interested in learning more about fact-checking, I recommend two excellent books on the subject, both available in print or ebook:

I’ve added links to some additional resources to my sidebar (with more to come), and here are some of my earlier blog posts on fact-checking.

Update, November 12th:

I went on a tweetstorm today about fact-checking, a summary of which I’ve posted here:

I’ve been thinking a lot about fact-checking this week because of the election and Monday’s Editors Guild meeting. In the meeting description, I wrote that fact-checking is about ensuring that a piece of writing and its sources are accurate, fair, and credible, and protecting writers and publications from errors, criticism, fraud, and lawsuits. But it’s bigger than that.

As writers, editors, or readers, we should care about the facts and loudly call out errors and falsehoods when we see them. So don’t share links without reading and evaluating the content and the source. When you see lies or fake news, call it out, correct it. Critical thinking, information literacy, fact-checking, crap detection, awareness of cognitive biases—these are more important than ever. This kind of work can be hard, lonely, and thankless, and often feels futile, but we should do it anyway, and keep doing it. Though people can choose to ignore or deny facts, eventually everyone has to deal with the consequences.

Update, November 25th: You can watch the video of my talk and download my handout here:

The BBC radio and television archive website

Thanks to Jay Lake, I discovered that the BBC Archive website contains some fantastic collections of old radio and television content. Here are just a few of the collections that caught my eye:

The full list of collections is here, and the home page has links to some other web resources.

Journalism warning labels and “unsucking” business jargon

Here are two great things featured today on BoingBoing.

Tom Scott’s journalism warning labels, complete with a PDF template so you can print your own set. I particularly like this one:

Unsuck It, a website created by Mule Design that translates business jargon into English. You can search by clicking the “unsuck it” button, but I suggest browsing through the long list of terms. Here are a few examples:

At [company X], we take [Y] seriously.
Unsucked:  We don’t care, but our lawyers do.

Content Creation
Unsucked:  Writing.

Consume Content
Unsucked: Read, watch, or listen.

Creative (n.), Creatives
Unsucked: Professional designer, illustrator, composer, filmmaker, or writer. Not your magic pixel-monkey.

Unsucked: Edit or choose.

We need to ideate on how to use social media to promote our brand.
Unsucked: Think.

Unsucked: Affect.

Make It Pop
This looks great, but if you can make it pop a bit more, we’ll be done here.
Unsucked: Add cliche elements to a site’s visual design (e.g., ribbon, drop-shadow, bevel).

Move Heaven and Earth
AT&T “will move heaven and Earth” to meet its customers’ growing data needs, AT&T Chief Technology Officer John Donovan said.
Unsucked: Try.

AP Stylebook surrenders the battle over “Web site” vs. “website”

I was very pleased to read today in this post on Poynter Online that the Associated Press Stylebook (the style manual used by most newspapers and journalists) is finally changing from Web site to website. This change now appears in the AP Stylebook Online and will be in the printed 2010 AP Stylebook.

It’s about time, as common usage long ago moved to website, a fact acknowledged by Bryan Garner in his excellent 2009 third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage:

website. One word, lowercase. But some stylesheets and dictionaries specify Web site (a clunker). When Web stands alone, it is capitalized. Cf. World Wide Web.

The New York Times, which has long had its own rather idiosyncratic style rules (see my 2009 post on the subject), uses Web site, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they continue to do so long after everyone else has abandoned it.

Here’s what the Chicago Manual of Style Online says about the issue:

Q. Which is currently accepted: Web site, web site, website, or Website?

A. A lot of people are writing “website.” A lot of people have come to prefer “website.” But formal usage still calls for “Web site,” in recognition of the initiatives of the World Wide Web Consortium (write “Web-site” as an adjective). The most elaborately formal modern American publication I can think of, the New Yorker, still writes “Web site,” but then again, they also write “E-mail,” “coördinate,” and “reëxamine”—they are very particular. We at Chicago are very particular too, and we recommend “Web site.” But our press as a whole is not in the position of publishing a single, unified publication—such as a magazine. It is easier to apply a set of standard rules and never vary from them for one publication, but rules applying to all sorts of books, articles, and other writing must be a little more flexible. Moreover, when a word gets used a lot it tends to lose any awkward edges (and what could be more awkward than a compound formed of one capitalized word and one lowercased word?). Each new book that appears on the scene presents an opportunity for an author to express a usage preference or to demonstrate a familiarity with changing usage.

But generally, I would recommend “Web site” for formal writing, but “website” for informal writing or friendly writing. Unless, of course, you prefer “Web site” even when you’re being friendly.

It’s a fact that style and usage change over time, though it often takes time to filter up to the guardians of language. One of the things I really like about the new edition of Garner is that he includes a “Language-Change Index” to “measure how widely accepted various linguistic innovations have become.” His Index has five stages:

Stage 1: A new form emerges as an innovation (or a dialectal form persists) among a small minority of the language community, perhaps displacing a traditional usage.

Stage 2: The form spreads to a significant fraction of the language community but remains unacceptable in standard usage.

Stage 3: The form becomes commonplace even among many well-educated people but is still avoided in careful usage.

Stage 4: The form becomes virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts….

Stage 5: The form is universally accepted (not counting pseudo-snoot eccentrics).

For example, email for e-mail is in Stage 4, and he explains in detail in the entry:

e-mail; E-mail; email. The first is the prevalent form in print sources. The letter e–short for electronic–is sometimes capitalized, but the trend is to make it lowercase. The unhyphenated email is unsightly, but it might prevail in the end. In print sources, e-mail is five times as common as email. Ultimately, the hyphen may well disappear–since that is what midword hyphens tend to do–but for the time being it is more than holding its own.

Of course the reason e-mail is much more common in print sources is that the style manuals used by print publications specify that as the correct usage.

For more on style manuals, see one of my earliest posts, The writer’s bookshelf (part 3), or some of my other posts on the subject.

Update, 8/5/10: The new 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style now embraces “website,” as I noted in the post I wrote after receiving my print copy.

Update, 8/6/10: See my new blog post, “A comparison of how the new style manuals treat tech words.”

Update, 3/18/11: AP has just dropped the hyphen from “e-mail.”

How cutting and pasting can lead to plagiarism

In today’s New York Times, Public Editor Clark Hoyt’s column, titled “Journalistic Shoplifting,” is about the recent plagiarism scandal surrounding Times business reporter Zachery Kouwe.

I wanted to point out this particular passage, in which Hoyt notes that both Zachery Kouwe and Gerald Posner claim that their plagiarism was unintentional, caused by cutting and pasting material from other sources and mixing it up with their own writing:

Kouwe told [John Koblin of the New York Observer] that the plagiarism happened with minor news reported elsewhere that needed to be matched on DealBook. He said he would copy stories from wires, paste them into a file in the editing system, verify the information and then put the material in his own words. At least, he said, that is what he intended to do. When I asked him how he could fail to notice that he was copying someone else’s work, he added further explanation: He said the raw material in the computer files in which he assembled his stories included not only reports from other sources but also context and background from previous articles that he had written himself. When putting it all together, he said, he must have thought the words he copied were his own, earlier ones. “It was just my carelessness in trying to get it up quickly,” he said.

The explanation was similar to one offered only days earlier by Gerald Posner, a reporter for The Daily Beast, who was caught by Jack Shafer of Slate cribbing sentences from The Miami Herald. Posner, who resigned after even more plagiarism was found, also said that he did not do it intentionally. He said he had poured all his research — interviews, public documents, published articles — into a master electronic file and then boiled it into an article under tight Web deadlines, a process that led to disaster.

We’ve seen before how cutting and pasting material written by others can lead to plagiarism, as in the Chris Anderson Free/Wikipedia scandal.

Writers can protect themselves from this kind of  “unintentional plagiarism” by incorporating some simple and practical tips into their research and writing process. In a July 2009 blog post on avoiding plagiarism, I recommended Harvard University’s excellent PDF publication Writing with Internet Sources. The chapter on “Incorporating Electronic Sources into Your Writing” contains a section called “Strategies for Avoiding Internet Plagiarism” (pages 42-44), with important advice for writers:

Internet plagiarism most often occurs when writers cut and paste from the Internet or paraphrase carelessly… The following tips will help you research and write with honesty and integrity.

  • Plan ahead
    … Budget enough time to search for sources, take notes on them, and think about how to use them… Moments of carelessness are more common when you leave your [writing] until the last minute and are tired or stressed. Honest mistakes can lead to charges of plagiarism just as dishonesty can; be careful when note-taking and in the incorporation of ideas and language from electronic sources so you don’t “borrow”—i.e., unintentionally plagiarize—the work of another writer.
  • Print your sources
    Print the relevant pages from any websites you use, making sure that you note the complete URL….
  • File and label your sources
    Never cut and paste information from an electronic source straight into your own [writing]. Instead, open a separate document on your computer for each electronic source so you can file research information. When you cut and paste into that document, make sure to include the full URL….
  • Keep your own writing and your sources separate
    Work with either the printed copy of your source(s) or the copy you pasted into a separate document—not the online version—as you [write]….
  • Keep your notes and your draft separate
    Be careful to keep your research notes separate from your actual draft; this will ensure you don’t cut language from a source and paste it directly into your draft without proper attribution. You can open your notes and your draft next to each other on your computer screen and work back and forth.
  • Acknowledge your sources explicitly when paraphrasing
    In your research notes, use some form of notation to indicate what you’ve paraphrased (e.g., put brace brackets around the paraphrase), and mention the author’s name within the material you paraphrase. Once you start writing and revising, make sure you avoid gradually rewording the paraphrased material until you lose sight of the fact that it is still a paraphrase of someone else’s ideas….
  • Quote your sources properly
    Always use quotation marks for directly quoted material, even for short phrases and key terms….
  • Keep a source trail
    As you write and revise…, keep a source trail of notes and of each successive draft…. You ought to be able to reconstruct the path you took from your sources, to your notes, to your drafts, to your revision….

I also recommend that you read Craig Silverman’s recent column for the Columbia Journalism Review, “The Counter-Plagiarism Handbook: Tips for writers and editors on how to avoid or detect journalistic plagiarism.” Here are two of his useful tips for writers:

  • Use a different font and text color for your research files. This will help you instantly recognize other people’s words when you paste them into your story.
  • Add in the proper attribution as soon as you paste any research into your draft.

“Never assume anything!”: Tips for greater accuracy

In light of my recent blog posts about errors and fact-checking, I thought I’d link to some resources to help writers improve their accuracy. Though some of these sources were written for journalists, much of the advice applies equally well to anyone who researches, writes, or edits. It’s important to remember that writers are ultimately responsible for their own work, and they can no longer just assume that their mistakes will be caught and corrected by copy editors or fact-checkers.

This list of “44 Tips for Greater Accuracy” is by Frank E. Fee Jr., the Knight Professor of Editing at the Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. There are two versions of Fee’s tips on the web: the first is a concise list, and the second has additional explanatory comments by Fee. You should read the whole thing, but here are some of his more important and universal tips:

  • Always do the math. Don’t rely on another person’s figures…
  • Never disregard a question that has been raised by another reader [or] by that small, sometimes indistinct voice in the back of your head…
  • Never assume anything!
  • We have to see the forest and the trees, so always read (at least) once for content and effect [and] read (at least) once for the mechanical errors (grammar, punctuation, keyboarding).
  • Always use all of the tools available to you (dictionary, stylebook, spell-checker, reference books, etc.). Don’t be too busy or too proud to check a fact.
  • Never trust anything in the [newspaper] clips. How do you know the first story was correct? Do you know for sure corrections caught up with the library clip or archive copy? Has something changed since that story was written?
  • Always get another pair of eyes to look at copy…
  • Always analyze any correction you see — yours or another’s. Ask: How did the error occur? How could it have been avoided? What would I do next time?
  • Always give any sensitive, unusual or tricky material one last look.
  • Always go back and read the full sentence if you’ve changed a word or two in copy. Watch for subject-verb agreement, missing info, duplication, etc.
  • In doubt? Always call the reporter, wire service, or even the source. We’re after the truth, not just a plausible narrative…
  • Always be careful how you ask questions when checking a fact. Leading questions may lead you into trouble. Ask open questions that ensure complete, open answers.
  • Never commit to print anything that you don’t understand. If you don’t know, what are the chances readers will? In pinning down your own understanding, you may: learn something; find a better way to say it; find a more accurate way to say it.
  • Never correct an error until you’re sure you made one. Retrace your steps. Don’t take someone else’s word that copy is wrong; check it out. This will help you discover why the error was made.
  • Always remember: Errors can come in clusters. Finding one may not find them all. There may be others.
  • “Fee’s Theorem”: “The most severe error in any one passage of a story will divert attention from the less severe errors in the same passage. The bigger the error, the more likely it will be the only one caught at that reading. Subsequent readings will tend to continue to eliminate only successive next-most-glaring errors.”

Accuracy First (for reporters)” is a handout that was developed as part of the American Press Institute’s seminar, “Our Readers Are Watching.” Here are a few highlights:

Ensuring accuracy involves several steps:

  • Asking effective questions.
  • Taking accurate notes.
  • Gathering source documents.
  • Questioning information.
  • Verifying information.
  • Fact-checking your story.

Get the names right

Screw up a name and readers who know how that person spells the name will not trust anything else you write. And the source will certainly question your ability or commitment to getting anything else right…

How do you know that?

Judith Miller of the New York Times blamed her inaccurate reporting on weapons of mass destruction on her sources. “If your sources are wrong, you are wrong,” she wrote. Don’t ever buy or use that excuse. The story has your name on it. You are responsible for the information in your story, however you attribute it. Do all you can to evaluate the source and verify the information.

Get to the source. When a character gives you a fact in an interview, get used to asking, “How do you know that?” This gets you to the source of the information. The person you’re talking to may be mistaken or lying or not remember the complete story. Asking “How do you know that?” helps you find the best source for the information. If you’re hearing a story second- or third-hand, trace it back to its origin. If someone is citing statistics to you, get the report that is the source of those statistics. Then you can verify, add context and find more stats.

Evaluate the source. Ask questions of your source (and other sources) that will help you determine how knowledgeable and reliable this person is: Does the source hold a position that would give her official access to this information? Is the source well enough connected to learn this information unofficially? Has this person given you reliable (or unreliable) information before? Has this person given you inaccurate information before? What is the source’s motivation for talking to you? Is the source willing to go on the record and stand behind her story publicly? Who else knows this? Who else knows more about this?

Evaluate the information. Ask questions of your source (and other sources) that will help you determine how knowledgeable and reliable this information is: Does your source know whether this is theory, speculation, rumor or fact? If the information is factual, is it current? Is it complete? What is the context?…

Verify using other sources

Who else knows? Seek other people who are knowledgeable about this situation. They can confirm or refute what you’ve been told. They can fill in gaps. Seek to resolve differences. Again, ask them how they know. Beware the echo chamber: You aren’t receiving confirmation if your second source only knows the information because the first source told her.

Seek documentation. Find official data, records and reports that can confirm, refute or expand upon what you have been told. If you are writing about a court hearing you didn’t attend, get the official transcript. Photographs might help you verify some details…

Go online. Seek verification (or original information) at the official web site of the organization you’re writing about and web sites of agencies that regulate the organization and interest groups that monitor the organization. Be as wary of information you find on the internet as you would of any other source of information. Especially be wary of information from sites that don’t verify their information, such as Wikipedia…

Chip Scanlan’s article on the Poynter Online website, “Getting it Right: A Passion for Accuracy,” contains advice and links to other sources.

Sarah Harrison Smith’s 2004 book The Fact Checker’s Bible: A Guide to Getting It Right has information on reading for accuracy, what to check, researching facts, and assessing the credibility of reference sources.

If you know of other useful sources you’d like to recommend, please do so in the comments to this post.