Alex is a PR professional currently working for a leading British digital marketing agency.
But do you have a formal fact-checking process to ensure all the information within your content is accurate?
If not, now’s the time to get started.
The Trust Crisis
Fact-checking is more important than ever. We’re in the midst of a full-fledged consumer trust crisis, driven in part by the 2008 economic crisis, distrust of politicians and corporations, and the sheer volume of information available on the internet.
Consumers are naturally more sceptical of virtually every business, and would far prefer spending money with companies that offer honesty, transparency, and integrity than those they don’t trust. Letting even a handful of inaccurate data points slip by could be cause for further distrust; conversely, if you’re able to build trust with consistently reliable information, you could easily stand out in today’s content market.
What Could Go Wrong?
You intend to include only factual information in your work, so what’s the point of fact-checking? You’ve already done the research, so it’s almost like you’ve done a round of fact-checking just by writing the article.
However, it’s common for a number of things to go wrong during this process:
- Typos. If you’ve ever written an email too quickly, you know how common typos are, and how easily they can compromise the integrity of your message. If you mistype a number or use wording that changes the meaning behind the statement, you could unintentionally make your accurate information inaccurate.
- Misattribution. You could also misattribute a fact in your citation. This often happens when you get a piece of information from a third-party publisher, like an industry news outlet, rather than a primary source, like a research journal or data firm.
- Unreliable research. You could also cite correct information from a source, but if that source is unreliable, that information may not be valid. Accordingly, it’s always a good idea to verify your information with other sources (or with a background check of your primary source).
- Disputed evidence. Just because a fact appears to be true in one source doesn’t mean it’s universally or unequivocally true. A newer source may dispute the original information or negate it entirely, whether it’s a simple misunderstanding or a ridiculous premise.
Simple Steps for Better Fact-Checking
The concept behind fact-checking is simple; double-check the facts, figures, claims, and statistics in your work to make sure they’re accurate. But if you want to be thorough, and prevent the majority of potential issues before they ever arise, follow these important steps:
1. Know your vulnerabilities. Understand where the key vulnerability points of your article are. Few people, if any, will call you on your own opinion or on a reasonable blanket statement. However, dates, numbers, quotes, and specific facts are going to require some hard evidence and face additional scrutiny.
2. Check your source. For every fact, you cite, double-check the legitimacy of your source. How long has this source been around? Is it peer-reviewed? Is it subject to formal scrutiny? Is it unbiased? If your source isn’t rock-solid, you’ll need to employ some secondary tactics to make sure your facts are correct.
3. Check other sources. Even if you trust your main source, poke around to see if you can find another source that backs up your findings. It’s a good way to gain more confidence in your reporting or find contradictory information you can use to build stronger content.
4. Rely on fact-checking websites. If you’re working with a hot new piece of information, or if your facts sound dubious, see if you can find the real scoop on fact-checking websites, such as org or Snopes.com. These independent sources do the fact-checking for you, and typically highlight commonly circulated stories to either prove or debunk them for audiences.
5. Ask an expert (or two). If you’re still having trouble getting to the bottom of a story, or if you find information that’s disputed, consider reaching out to an expert in the field. They should be able to offer clarity, and if not a firm answer, at least some perspective on what’s really going on.
Even the most thorough fact-checking process can sometimes miss an important detail, but there are strategies you can use to mitigate the risk of losing face in front of your customers.
Get to the original source and cite them. Don’t take a secondary source’s word for it; drill down until you find the original source, and cite them. If people have a problem with the fact, they can take it up with the original source.
Acknowledge disputes. Occasionally, you’ll find areas where the facts aren’t so clear. If and when you do, don’t be afraid to acknowledge the disputed territory. Address inconsistencies in the research, and make it clear that there’s no consensus on this issue.
Admit uncertainty when necessary. If you did the research, but aren’t confident enough to land on one side or the other, admit your own uncertainty. People will respect you more for saying “I don’t know” than for making a guess that turns out to be inaccurate.
You don’t have to be perfect, but you should do everything in your power to provide the best available information to your audience. If you’re consistent in this process, you’ll naturally build brand trust over time and potentially avoid a PR disaster.