Fact-checking research lesson

February 8th, 2010 by Jack

OK, I’ve updated this post to reflect the fact-checking lesson material as taught.  First, we discussed some of the most common kinds of facts that need to be checked in any story, including numbers and statistics, names, dates, ages, locations, titles and degrees.  Among the kinds of numbers we discussed were the questionable NYPD crime statistics as reported by the New York Times, Daily News and Village Voice (again and again), as well as the 2008-09 and 2009-10 NYU tuition costs from different sources.  We agreed that while data from primary sources–such as the 2008-09 tuition–is preferable, even that is not necessarily accurate, as the NYPD crime statistics controversy shows.  From a research perspective, primary sources generate data, so they’re more likely to be correct, as opposed to secondary sources, which only report data.  Government agencies are a typical primary source.  (You can trust their data as much as you can trust the government.)  News media are a typical secondary source.  The general idea is to be citing primary sources in your stories, where appropriate.  You can also “couch” any questionable data, if necessary.

As far as actually checking facts, we killed three birds with one stone by looking up the name (spelling), age and location of my brother, using the BirthDetails and Can I Vote? web sites.  The first was a useful secondary source, and the second linked to state voter registration sites, which qualify as primary.  This is not the only way to check the facts we did, but it’s a good one.  Another would be DMV records.  Of course, sometimes neither method will be available to you, and then you’d have to use other means.  We also agreed that an employer would be the best (primary) source for checking someone’s title.

Although we didn’t have time to review them, I did promise you links for obtaining military personnel records and a degree verification database.  The former requires a formal “Form 180” request that takes some time to process.  The latter requires a nominal fee to retrieve records.

Last but not least, never forget the two most important fact-checking questions…

  1. Are you sure?
  2. Says who?

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