Mistrust and Verify

August 31, 2017

As an editor, I’ve always had to do a certain amount of fact-checking—names, dates, places, and other facts. I thought I was fairly good at it, since I’d been fact-checking in one form or another for 30 years. Before the Internet came along, I had a massive set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica that I used to dig through, sitting on the floor surrounded by open volumes. And since the Internet, I’ve spent a lot of time online doing research, surrounded by open tabs on my browser.

In 2014, however, I got a project to fact-check an entire book, and it became clear to me that I had a lot to learn when it came to fact-checking and online research. I finished the book and the client was happy with the results, but I wasn’t happy with how long it took me and how frustrating it was to locate and verify some of the facts (or not locate and verify them in a few cases).

Since that project, I’ve been reading about fact-checking and trying to learn more about it, when I’ve had the time. I shared what I’d learned in a series of blog posts between November 2015 and July 2017. Now I’ve gone through those posts, reorganized them, and compiled the best points into a PDF, in case the links and advice might be helpful to others.

The topics covered in this blog (and the PDF) include books and news articles, blogs and resources, links, search techniques, and sometimes things that just strike me as interesting. I’ve also included things that may seem pretty basic to some readers, but little things can make a big difference if you’re not aware of them.

This isn’t a blog about political fact-checking. I’m an editor, not a journalist or a campaign worker.

I’m calling this “Mistrust and Verify” in honor of a friend I used to work with. When he’d proofread something, he’d say, “There’s a mistake on this page, and I’m going to find it.” And since he was a good proofreader, he often found quite a lot. That’s a helpful attitude to have in fact-checking, too—not “These facts are probably correct,” but “These facts may well be wrong, and they’re not to be trusted until they’re verified.” I don’t recommend skepticism as a personality trait, but it can be very helpful in fact-checking. As Craig Silverman put it in his Verification Handbook, the basic principle of verification is “How do you know that?” And, if you’re going to be thorough about it, “How else do you know that?”

So here’s some advice on “How do you know that?” Or at least on how you can look into it. You can download my PDF of past blog posts at the bottom of the page, which go through July 2017.

Frank Steele,
Mar 6, 2018, 6:06 PM