If your mother tweets that she loves you, make sure it was really your mother tweeting.

Oh, and make sure she wasn’t using her parody account. It’s a new media corollary to an old journalistic principle about the value of skepticism.

Check it out.

That old adage used to be accomplished by talking to people in person or doing research in libraries. While those old media methods still have an important place in the toolbox, when it comes to new media and fact checking, journalists need to employ new tools.

But first they need to make the time to be skeptical.

The problem with fact checking is that it takes time to do and time isn’t always part of the digital news recipe. When you see that random tweet that suggests something big is going down (or that your mother loves you), there’s a lot of pressure to just run with it — before someone else beats you to the punch.

When you combine the push to be first with often-dwindling newsroom resources, taking the time to check the facts — however you might be doing it — often gets deleted from the mix.

But when we look at changes in the way information is shared, the importance of fact checking and verification procedures becomes clear. You need only look to your social media feeds to see how many people are sharing unvetted, inaccurate information and how one mention multiplies exponentially.

Then when media organizations share that information, it lends credibility to the inaccuracies. And it erodes trust in the media.

Sure, as a reader I can just Google it and get the facts, right? But how correct is what you are seeing on Google? How many reporters and copy editors are asking two of the best questions that can be asked: Who said that and how did they know?

Recently one of the student copy editors at the Columbia Missourian newspaper was checking a link that supported a fact quoted in a story. When he got to the website cited, he stopped to say, “Who are these people and how do they know this?”

The story said that 3 percent of Missouri children are homeschooled. The copy editor wanted to trace the authority for the figure. So he asked: “Who is running this website that the reporter linked to?”

What he discovered is that the website is run by one woman who has an admitted agenda to promote homeschooling. The copy editor’s next step was searching for that same information on an official site. He found that Missouri does not require registration of or keep records on homeschoolers.

More digging showed that the 3 percent figure linked to in the story was merely a guess.

Where’s the harm in letting that slip, you might ask? Without the fact check, that guess would’ve been presented as fact. After a while, it would become difficult to drill down far enough to find that the number wasn’t true.

Consider how that works for things like breaking news and how fast an unverified tweet can become the information everyone believes.

An editing colleague recently was told that fact-checking procedures don’t work in online environments because they take too much time. And, anyway, if an error does occur online, it can be corrected the same day.

Making — and acknowledging — corrections when errors happen is important, but when information is scrolling across phone screens at a rapid pace, how often will that correction be missed? The best practice is to make sure it’s correct first.

That starts with some basic questions, like “Says who?” and “How do they know?” It also starts with teaching journalists how to determine the “says who” and “how do they know” in a digital environment.

How do you verify a social media post? How do you know the photo from the scene wasn’t doctored? Some of that is learning new tools, and some is just becoming familiar with doing online research.

New resources like the Verification Handbook, edited by Regret the Error founder Craig Silverman, offer techniques for using crowd-sourced information in credible and timely news content. Websites like TinEye help journalists with the questions about where a photo originated.

The next step is to make digital fact-checking training available and promote its importance to all journalists.

I’m working on two projects related to that. Through my position as Knight visiting news editor at the Columbia Missourian, I’m working on developing curriculum for teaching digital verification. As a board member of the American Copy Editors Society, I’m organizing a daylong training track on fact checking for the 2015 ACES national conference March 26-28 in Pittsburgh.

As part of those projects, I’ve been asking fact checkers and copy editors about the areas where training should focus. The answers so far are varied: sourcing numbers, social media and crowdsourcing verification, teaching people about new digital tools.

Here’s your chance to contribute: If you were to sign up for a digital fact-checking training session, what would you hope it covered? Let me know by sending me an email at berendzeng@missouri.edu.

Fortunately, the very tool that makes spreading misinformation and rumors so easy today also helps in the job of fact checking — if we know how to use it.

If your mother tweeted that she loves you, would you know how to verify that tweet?

Gerri Berendzen  


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