Some Fact Checking Bombs To Avoid

sfcbtaHere’s how to sidestep the most common factual land mines:

* Name spellings. Have the source give you the spelling, not vice versa. Watch for hyphenated names, reversed letters and accent marks.

* Numbers. Figures can add up to devastating errors if reversed or printed with an extra zero.

* Job titles. If you replace a long-winded job title with a simpler description (“cosmetic researcher” instead of “Associate Professor of Clinical Microbiology in the School of Cosmetic Pharmacology at the University of Northern Indiana“), make sure it accurately describes what your source does – is he or she a researcher, a chemist or a pharmacist?

* Ages. Confirm a source’s age directly with him or her, rather than going with hearsay or previously published articles.

* Dates and time. Is your source talking about this summer or last summer? The fall or spring semester? Did she first notice a problem recently or ten years ago?

* Punctuation. Many proper names have unusual punctuation. Is the band’s name Motorhead? (FYI: It’s the last.)

* Geography. Check with chamber of commerce offices or consult maps: Do Peachtree and Piedmont streets intersect? Would it take a day or a week to drive from Nashville to Tallahassee?

* Deaths. Killing someone prematurely is perhaps the most excruciating mistake of all. If a source describes a person as “the late so-and-so,” double-check before you print it.

* Brand names. If you don’t have the product handy, call the International Trademark Association’s Trademark Hotline (212/768-9886 between 2 and 5 p.m.) to check spellings of brand-name products and services, from Alka-Seltzer tablets to Ziploc bags.

* Chronology. The order of events s often key to understanding a situation. Was an executive sued before or after she resigned?

* Quotations. Consult your tapes or notes to be sure of all qoutes and paraphrases. Double-check with your source to be sure you’re not putting misleading words in his mouth. And if someone tells you “As Mark Twain said …”, verify that Twain really said it.

Seven Dubious Sources

Be extra skeptical of these sources:

* Press releases. Don’t make one of these your sole source for accurate information. Several years ago, a rock band tested the media’s fact-checking prowess by distributing bogus press releases. Several newspapers and magazines reported the “story” about a fictitious lawsuit. Press releases are great sources for story leads, but you must verify your facts elsewhere.

* Statistics. Numbers are subject to interpretation, so use them with caution. Many writers use them in articles because they’re attention-grabbers, but back up a statistic with solid reporting.

* Supermarket encyclopedias and shoddy reference books. Errors are a dime a dozen in these “sources.” Use them only for background.

* Notes on cocktail napkins. Handwritten notes (even if they’re in your own handwriting) can be useless. I learned this the hard way, after interviewing medical researchers at a press conference for a newly approved drug. When I began to write my story, I had a jumble of illegible scrawls with no idea who said what. If you can’t tape a conversation, note the source’s name and rewrite your notes immediately afterward, while your memory is still fresh.

* Biased sources. Be wary of sources with an ax to grind: fired employees, ex-lovers, jealous competitors. What they say may add color to your story – but also blatant inaccuracies or unsupported accusations. Be careful to check what such people tell you with a less-biased second source.

* Previously published articles. We all use these as source material, but confirm the facts independently if you can. Even Newsweek and Time make mistakes, and the last thing you want to do is reprint an error another magazine has published.

* Your memory. When describing a classic movie scene, don’t rely on your memory – watch the video and get it right. As sure as you may be of Brando’s line in The Godfather, check it. If you’re even a word off, die-hard fans will call you on it.

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