How to be an honest broker of communications: A guide to fact-checking
by Dan Stefano, on Mar. 12, 2020
From political campaigns to coronavirus, simultaneous with news stories breaking down stump speeches, debates and briefings we see fact-checking articles in a greater number than ever before. It’s a sign of the times — trust in our leaders and institutions is low.
The same goes for marketers and the organizations they represent. The discerning consumer, potential business partner or new hire may kick the tires and perform due diligence before they buy, partner or work with you. And you’ll probably do the same.
At WordWrite, one of our core values is being authentic — seriously, it’s written on the walls around this place. The brief definition we offer is to be an “honest broker of communications.” That’s an ideal to strive toward for anyone in any capacity, be they a public relations professional, social media expert, member of the media, politician, parent, child, friend, acquaintance, stranger… you get it.
But what does it mean to be an honest broker of communications? You might say it’s facilitating transactions of information, collecting and distributing authentic messages and stories. That’s not a duty to take lightly. Indeed, it means our communications must stand up to fact-checking — and we need to be doing some fact-checking of our own.
Read on for a beginner’s guide to fact-checking:
Check your sources
Say you’re writing a pitch for the media or performing some research for a client. You’ll want some good facts and figures to back up the points you’re making, and with the internet at your fingertips, it’s easy to find a source backing up almost anything you want to say — and that’s the problem.
For example, if I’m writing an article about how the sun rises in the west and sets in the east, crazy as it sounds, I can probably find it online from a seemingly reputable source (side note: I don’t want to Google this and get sucked down that rabbit hole). Maybe it’ll be the official-sounding Professional Society of Accredited Reverse Sunsetters. “Professional?” “Accredited?” Surely, this group is a great source to prove my quite-literal backwards thinking.
A deeper look might show some cracks. Maybe the accreditation is from a made-up university. Maybe the group leader’s background is in astrology, not astronomy. Maybe their only evidence comes from a long-ago debunked study. And maybe they’re the only ones promoting the theory.
When checking a source, especially over the misinformation-filled web, inspect credentials, get verification from other properly credentialed sources, or see if another reputable outlet has cited them. And obviously, certain sources of information are more trustworthy than others: A study in the New England Journal of Medicine went through a peer-review process, and a New York Times article normally has to go through multiple editors trained to scrutinize details. Even then, some due diligence is wise to make sure the information is accurate.
Edit for context
Even when using accurate sources or reviewing a piece that uses factual information, it may not be honestly presented. Context is just as important as being truthful.
For example, sometimes sources may not use full quotes, which is just as good as not quoting someone. This happens all the time during election season. You might see an attack ad, showing a politician shouting “I hate peanuts!” and angering the peanut-loving masses, but what if the full quote was “I hate peanuts, because they’re so delicious that I eat too many of them!” Suddenly, that pol might have the peanut lobby back on their wagon.
When someone says what they said matters, too. A quote from 1995 may not accurately capture how a person feels today — though, in this case, if someone is flip-flopping their feelings on peanuts, their previous history may need to be addressed.
Timing matters, too, when it comes to parsing out the accuracy of information. Keeping things nutty, a study on the deliciousness of cashews performed in 2020 may be more accurate than the same oddly specific study performed in 2010. The same goes for webpages, as a site with a 2010 timestamp may have less applicable information — not to mention a hideous user interface — than one made within the last few years.
Ultimately, a communicator must use context clues (to borrow an elementary school phrase) to confirm information is relevant, complete and timely.
Trust no one
Subhead sounds a little like a spy movie, huh? In this context, maybe reel it back to more of a political conspiracy thriller. Regardless, the point stands that when doing research or reviewing someone else’s work, you should be cautious of every source you find. Someone cites a study — dig a little deeper. Someone quotes an “expert” — check the credentials.
For that matter, be wary of “experts,” in general. You see this term used in headlines or news stories all the time. Attorneys might talk about “expert testimony.” But just who is an expert? Again, it comes down to context.
Sometimes, the word is used simply as a catch-all to describe a source, whether or not it’s totally accurate. An article may say, “a panel of expert scientists agreed climate change is a myth.” OK, then — who are these experts? If it’s a group of psychologists, they might indeed be a panel and experts in their field, but they’re as qualified for studying the atmosphere as they are performing a heart transplant. Now, if it’s a group of climatologists with PhDs working at top-tier universities, that’d be something (though, if they’re contending climate change is a hoax, with the wealth of evidence proving it is not, maybe you need to dig even deeper).
The point is, when you’re fact-checking an article, release, pitch, tweet or anything you’re sharing with the world, you have the burden to prove the source is legitimate. If you’re a PR professional and a client is insistent on using a particular study based on funky math or written by someone with dubious qualifications, it could be an uncomfortable conversation — but it’s one worth having.
Prove your bonafides as an honest broker of communications, and you’ll soon be seen as the expert.
Looking to develop your team’s skills in working with the media, developing a crisis plan or maneuvering through the world of social media? Check out our Chapter Series.