According to former journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, “the essence of journalism is a discipline of verification.” As such, verification is absolutely central to journalism — or, at the very least, ‘good’ journalism.
Verification refers to the act of establishing or testing the truth or correctness of a fact, theory, statement, etc., by means of special investigation or comparison of data. Put another way, it is the act of seeking out corroborating evidence that would give us greater confidence that something is in fact true.
Verification is necessary to ensure that journalists get what happened down correctly. Truth ultimately demands accuracy, and the process of verification can serve as a means for sorting through different perceived realities by identifying inaccuracies and approximating truth through corroboration.
Within newsrooms, it is not uncommon to hear the cliché, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” This isn’t just because journalists have a great degree of self-loathing and significant trust issues. It’s because skepticism lies at the heart of the journalistic cultures in many places, including the U.S. Journalists understand that sources often have agendas, and thus a purpose for speaking to a journalist (i.e., to get favorable coverage for something they care about). Even if the source is not acting in a self-interested way, the source might simply misremember a piece of information or recall seeing something that never actually happened. Even documents might have mistakes in them that a journalist will not want to repeat in their reporting.
In a selfish way, verification is also important because journalists trade on their social currency. Put another way, journalists who are seen as being credible are more likely to have their work taken seriously, and sources will be more likely to divulge information to credible journalists. A big part of establishing that credibility is demonstrating the ability to consistently and rigorously vet information.
There is no single way to verify information, but here are some helpful strategies and tools that you can master to quickly evaluate the quality and veracity of different information.
One strategy is to commit to interrogating all of your ‘facts’ as you would a suspect. Those ‘facts’ may have come from your own research or from something a source said.
Start by jotting down all of the assertions and factual information you might include in your story. Then, ask yourself: How do we know this fact? Why is this assertion true? What are the assumptions underlying this statement? At the heart of your interrogation should be the question: Why should the reader, viewer, or listener believe this?
The goal of your interrogation should be to triangulate information, or find multiple sources that say or show the same thing (or at least highly similar things). This might involve asking multiple people questions about the same thing and seeing if the information they give you is consistent. For example, if three people describe an incident in the same way, you can have greater confidence that the description captures the truth of what happened.
Your interrogation should focus on getting as close as possible to the primary (original) sources of information. For example, if a spokesperson for the police department says that crime dropped by five percent, ask them for a copy of the data. If a source tells you the bar across the street is owned by an anti-alcohol advocate, pull the property record for the bar and research the owner. In general, presume that any single source is wrong and make it your job to check if they might actually be right.
The single most useful general tool for verifying information is a search engine. Modern journalists must become masters at knowing which search terms to use and how to make effective use of the ‘advanced search’ functionality of most search engines. For example, if a journalist was trying to determine if I still work at UMass, they could use the advanced search functionality in Google (or DuckDuckGo, if you like your privacy!) to limit results to the “umass.edu” domain. Alternatively, if they’re looking for any results about a journalism professor with my name, they could wrap my name in quotation marks (“Rodrigo Zamith”) to denote that the terms “Rodrigo” and “Zamith” should appear alongside each other (and in that order), and then add “journalism” as the end (i.e., search for ‘“Rodrigo Zamith” journalism’).
For verifying identities, the websites AnyWho and Spokeo are useful tools that allow you to look up a person’s name, age, and address based on public records. They also offer additional information through their paid features.
For verifying pictures that you might have come across on social media, the websites TinEye and Google Image Search are very helpful. They allow you to upload an image and the sites then show the many web pages where that image has appeared. This is especially helpful when a picture is alleged to represent a recent event — an assertion that can be easily debunked if it appeared online prior to the event. Moreover, the website FotoForensics and the program JPEGSnoop can help you use computer algorithms to detect whether an image has been altered by tools like Photoshop.
For verifying whether something actually happened at a particular location, it can be useful to double-check details from the photo with satellite imagery or a simple Google Maps search. For example, if you come across tweets saying a police officer was shot at a White Castle in Boston, you could easily debunk that by searching if White Castle has any locations in Boston. (They don’t, and that’s okay.) Similarly, Google Maps’ street view can sometimes be used to double-check details about a setting. You could even check if the weather conditions in a photo are corroborated by weather records about the location where the event allegedly took place.
Finally, fact-checking websites like Snopes can be immensely useful when a rumor starts to pick up speed. Such websites will often quickly identify and debunk misinformation, disinformation, and simple hoaxes spreading on the web. Quite often, a new rumor (and supposedly corroborating evidence) is just a rehash of a previously debunked piece of misinformation or disinformation.
Local, state, and federal governments are major producers of factual information, as are academic institutions, non-profit interest groups, and supranational governmental bodies (e.g., the United Nations). Familiarizing yourself with their websites and the kinds of information those institutions produce can be a useful time-saver.
For example, if you are looking to double-check unemployment statistics in the United States, a good first stop would be the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ website, which compiles monthly unemployment reports. If you want to double-check crime rates in the United States, a good first stop would be the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program (or, for more recent local information, a local police agency’s website). If you want to double-check whether the United States has a higher per-capita death rate than Brazil for an infectious disease, a good first stop would be the World Health Organization’s website.
There are many useful directories for finding the right websites for certain kinds of information — so many that I cannot possibly list them all here. However, the key is come up with an effective system for bookmarking useful sources of information and organizing them in a way that allows you to quickly find the right bookmarks. For example, many journalists will use tags in conjunction with their bookmarks. That way, if they’re ever looking to double-check any ‘health’ information, they can quickly find the right subset of websites. To that end, it is helpful to master your preferred browser’s bookmaking functionality or to use advanced bookmark managers (e.g., Raindrop and Memex).
Once you have finished writing your article, it is also helpful to use an accuracy checklist. For example, your accuracy checklist may involve double-checking:
The spelling for all names, companies, titles, and place names that are featured in the story.
All of the statistics featured in the story, taking special care to ensure you are using the right scale (e.g., “million” vs. “billion”).
All references to times, distances, and dates.
All of the quotations in the story, ensuring that they match any recordings you may have of those statements.
All arguments or narratives that depend on a fact, ensuring that they are logically consistent with that fact.
To apply that checklist rigorously, it can be helpful to print a copy of the story (e.g., article or voice-over script), go through every sentence, and circle every fact or assertion in it. If you can attribute all those red circles to an authoritative source or to multiple sources, then you can feel good about filing your story.
Verification refers to the act of establishing or testing the truth or correctness of a fact, theory, statement, etc., by means of special investigation or comparison of data. It is an essential component of ‘good’ journalism.
Verification helps protect a journalist’s credibility, which is a key form of social currency for journalists.
There is no single way to engage in verification but there are a number of resources that can help you verify information quickly. Moreover, it is helpful to learn best practices like keeping an accuracy checklist so that, over time, verifying information can become second nature.