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Get Your Facts Straight

  |  August 2, 2001   |  Comments

Fact checking ensures that the appropriate corrections are made, but it is a difficult and time-consuming process. Even in traditional publishing, it is often not properly done. Gerry offers some tips on how to do it right.

Fact checking is an essential content skill. It's the final thing that should be done with content before it is published. Writing, revising, and editing content can all introduce errors. Numbers, dates, quotes, Web site addresses, and names of people and organizations can end up incorrect. Fact checking ensures that the appropriate corrections are made, but it is a difficult and time-consuming process. Even in traditional publishing, it is often not properly done.

I'm a fan of the songwriter Lou Reed. For years I thought his real name was Louis Firbank, because, in practically every music encyclopedia I read, that was cited as his real name. Then I read an article by legendary rock journalist Lester Bangs on how Lou Reed became Louis Firbank. Bangs had been editor of Creem Magazine, and as a joke he wrote in the letters page that Lou Reed's real name was Firbank. This joke got picked up by one publisher, then another, then another...

The last issue of my "New Thinking" newsletter mentioned a report by the Markle Foundation. Because a Reuters news story that I read called it the "Merkle" Foundation, I had problems finding its Web site. Now, you would think that an organization as reputable as Reuters would get the facts correct. Maybe it has something to do with the pressure to publish quickly on the Web.

It is almost impossible to get everything you write 100 percent right. Most readers understand this and will excuse a minor mistake or two. Think of yourself as a car dealer. Every minor mistake you make is a small scratch on that new car that you're trying to sell. (Major mistakes would be faulty engines.)

Here are a number of things to do to avoid getting too many "scratches" on your content:

  • Print out the content you're going to fact check. Read it line by line, and make a note or mark beside every fact you need to check.

  • A fact-checking and editing trick is to start at the end of the document and use a ruler. Put the ruler underneath the last line. Gradually push it upward through the document as you read the text from right to left, watching out only for facts that need checking.

  • Be skeptical and investigative. Don't accept anything just because it comes from a "reputable" source.

  • Never rely on a single source. Always try to find at least two or three sources to confirm a fact. If a source you come across conflicts with others, then spread your net wider.

  • If an organization is being named, go to its Web site or find official documentation that will confirm how it spells its name.

  • If the document contains Web site links, copy and paste them into a browser and test them to ensure that each link is correct.

  • Be extra careful with dates and numbers. Watch out for zeros and commas in numbers. Also, check whether it says "millions" when in fact it should say "billions."
Follow these hints, and your readers will find fewer mistakes in your content.


Gerry McGovern Gerry McGovern is a Web consultant and author. His most recent books are Content Critical and The Web Content Style Guide, published by Financial Times Prentice Hall.

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