Last month, I was one of the many travelers whose holiday plans were canceled by the blizzard in Denver. It was a good thing I relied on my experience as a frequent traveler ... and not on the advice of local television news reporters in my city ... to know what I needed to do to make new flight arrangements. In one day, I heard several varieties of incorrect advice from three different reporters in three separate broadcasts on two different stations. Clearly, no one in either newsroom had bothered with a basic task of journalism: fact checking.
This incident reminded me that fact checking is also important to the work of a copywriter. Publishing incorrect information in a sales brochure or Web site is not only embarrassing to a company, it can create legal issues such as liability, violation of trade laws or copyrights, or improper disclosure of trade secrets.
Yet it can be difficult to know which facts to check and which sources to use for verification given the rush of project deadlines, with input and reviews coming from multiple people, and perhaps limited knowledge of the subject matter. And unless you were trained as a journalist, you may not know much about the basics of fact checking, such as analyzing statistics, following good verification procedures, and applying industry standards for acknowledging sources.
You can gain insights about the fact checking practiced by journalists in the book The Fact Checker's Bible by Sarah Harrison Smith. With experience as a fact checker for both The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker, Smith's discussion is focused largely on the issues that come up in feature articles and news reporting. However, she offers useful guidance for the process of fact checking, handling discussions with authors and editors, and evaluating the implications of visuals and video.
If you already have a checklist and procedure for fact checking, this book will give you new ideas for those tools. And if you haven't developed a process yet, this book will give you a good start. A quick read, The Fact Checker's Bible can help you create a good new year's resolution -- for fact checking -- that's easy to keep.
How is fact checking important to your work? What kinds of tools, processes, and resources do you use? Share your insights with others copywriters by commenting on this post.
Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it and, above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light. -- Joseph Pulitzer, American newspaper editor and publisher