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Inspired by a conversation heard on BBC Radio Leicester, in which presenter Jo Whiley talked to her guest, a professor at DeMontfort University in Leicester, about verification of stories by journalists before publication.
Common Sense and Timing
It is generally recommended that a journalist checks at least two sources before publishing a story. Sometimes, this is not possible or practical. Mainstream media often relies on being first with the news. In the time it takes to check all the facts within a story, the same story could be making its way around the internet or another publication.
With some stories, it is easy to determine whether or not something is likely to be true. A question was posed in the BBC interview regarding whether to take seriously a story about a woman giving birth to a cat. Of course, the answer was 'no'. This led me to look this up. According to an article on The Tudor Society, in 1569, it was alleged that a lady, Agnes Bowker, from Market Harborough in Leicestershire did, indeed, give birth to a cat. An investigation was undertaken, which determined that the woman had, in fact, not given birth to a cat at all.
Nature may do some strange things, and there have been stories in the past of women giving birth to various animals, but a good journalist or editor would, most likely, dismiss such a story as nonsense.
When and How to Fact Check
When there is a potential story, something which is possible or likely to be true, it is essential to determine the facts. It is important to ensure personal information, and other details are correct as well as verifying that the story is both true and delivered without bias.
Journalists should consult a minimum of two sources to check veracity and credibility, and to ensure objectivity. Where possible, consult multiple sources.
Gather Different Opinions
Checking facts is essential, and this can usually be done by making contact with those directly involved. If this is not possible, check that the same information is cited by all sources consulted. If any source gives different information from another about a fact, the matter may need to be investigated further. It is also important to determine which sources are the most credible.
To be truly objective, a writer can simply state only verified facts. Nevertheless, there are always opinions to be had. A good journalist will check various sources. While some media outlets, writer, journalist, etc. do have their own agenda, and will publish stories with a certain bias, a truly objective writer will look for sources and opinions with which they disagree, which do not necessarily follow their own ideas, as well as those which support their perspective. It is impossible to form a completely objective piece of writing with only one side of a story.
So, consider as many sides as possible, while also remembering that opinions and perspectives differ. Facts must be checked and determined to be true. Opinions, however, should be represented fairly.
Write Now, Apologise Later
Everyone makes mistakes. Journalists sometimes follow stories too quickly and without checking their accuracy. This can lead to those who trust the source becoming mislead or becoming skeptical of the source.
Some sources prefer to be the first with a story and have the chance to apologise if it turns out to be inaccurate. It is not wrong to do this, but it can lead to problems, especially if there are individuals involved who will be affected by the story.
The basics of good journalism are to use common sense, check at least two sources (preferably more) and write objectively.
Even a timely piece can be fact-checked. Use common sense to determine whether something is likely to be true, accept and use different approaches to situations. You do not have to agree with everything you see, read, or hear, but you should try not to confuse fact with opinion.