As the tragic story about MH17 broke last week, broadcast news networks (especially those of the 24-hour variety) scrambled for any scoop they could find. In the mad dash to find an eye witness, MSNBC got pranked pretty good when a caller who said he was a sergeant stationed at the U.S. embassy in Ukraine claimed he’d seen a missile hit the plane.
He then made a lewd reference and cursed at the host, Krystal Ball, who didn’t pick up on the rather obvious fact that he was pranking her. Both MSNBC and Krystal Ball come away looking rather poorly; someone manning the phones at MSNBC obviously didn’t bother to verify the man’s story – a simple Internet search would have shown that the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine is stationed in Kiev, which is more than 200 miles from Hrabrove, the site of the crash. At that distance, he wouldn’t have seen a thing.
Put that whole story next to the study released this week, which shows that journalists live tweeting during the 2012 election acted more as stenographers than reporters, as 60 percent of them just repeated what the candidates said, instead of fact-checking such claims for veracity.
As more and more marketing and public relations professionals are themselves becoming content creators in addition to their long-established role in working with journalists, it’s important to remember that with your organization’s reputation on the line, fact-checking is something we all need to do – not just journalists.
This doesn’t mean you need to employ a fact-checking machine a la The New Yorker, but it does mean that taking a little extra time to double-check that everything is in order can save you or your organization from making a silly but meaningful blunder.
Things that always need to be fact-checked:
- Names, dates, locations, job titles
- Quotes – always check that you have not only the words right, but the context as well
- Numbers and statistics
- Basic facts – because “facts” aren’t always completely factual
Google is a useful fact-checking tool, but if you’re Googling to find out whether a statistic is correct, make sure that the sites you’re using for verification are themselves reputable, and that you can find the same statistic in more than one place. While Wikipedia can also be useful, keep in mind that pages can be and are frequently changed and updated, so it should not be your independent source of information, especially if you’re doing an online-only fact check.
Email and the telephone are also great tools – if you need to make sure someone actually said what they said, just call. In journalism, fact-checkers won’t read a quote back to the speaker, but in public relations and marketing, there is no such restriction, so if there’s an error, it’s easy to re-work a quote.
Chances are that you won’t be live-tweeting election debates and that your account won’t be held up to as much public scrutiny as a journalist’s, but even if you’re at a conference and life-tweeting a presentation, keep in mind that if the speaker makes an assertion, you tweet it out, and that assertion later turns out to be incorrect, you could come away with a negative perception. You never know when what you tweet will come back to haunt you – just ask Justine Sacco.