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Feb 28 / King Kaufman

Study: Journalists lack standardized methods of verification

Poynter’s Craig Silverman has written a piece about a study that looked into how journalists verify information.

The funny thing about that is: They don’t.

Well, that’s not exactly it. But what Canadian researchers Ivor Shapiro, Colette Brin, Isabelle Bédard-Brûlé and Kasia Mychajlowycz found is that, according to Silverman, “the methods for achieving accuracy vary from one journalist to the next. There is no single standard for verification, and not every fact is treated the same.”

“A small, easily checkable fact needs to be checked; a larger but greyer assertion, not so much — unless it is defamatory,” they write. “Thus, verification for a journalist is a rather different animal from verification in scientific method, which would hold every piece of data subject to a consistent standard of observation and replication.”

The researchers studied the methods of 28 Canadian journalists, 14 of them recent journalism-award winners and the other half authors of pieces of similar length to the ones that earned awards. A funny side note, and maybe more than a side note, is that the researchers relied on the 28 journalists’ own accounts of their fact-checking methods. That is, they couldn’t verify the information!

Their key finding is that while the need for verification and accuracy is universally acknowledged, there is little “methodological discipline” in pursuing it. To oversimplify, everybody has their own methods and standards for verifying facts, and traditional journalism textbooks offer exhortations to get the facts right, but little guidance in how to do it.

Silverman writes that a “positive trend I’ve seen in recent years, which wasn’t part of this specific research, is that the increasing use of user-generated content by newsrooms has resulted in organizations creating a defined verification process.”

That’s certainly been the case with Bleacher Report, where we talk a lot about verification and offer specific guidelines and education. Silverman offers links to similar efforts at Storyful, the BBCthe Associated Press and CNN’s iReport.

I think that’s only part of the story. There’s also the fact that a lot of information comes to reporters through social media, which can be unreliable. It’s easy and often cheap to represent something false as apparently true, and anyone who isn’t careful about verification will get suckered sooner or later. Probably sooner.

There’s also fisking. That’s an old blogosphere slang word for the idea that the audience doesn’t have to sit still for shoddy reporting or false statements in the Internet age, when so much information is at their fingertips. The term’s namesake is British journalist Robert Fisk, who in 2001 was called out by bloggers for writing that the American media had “missed” an important story, when in fact that story had been on the front pages of major newspapers.

A blogger named named Ken Layne famously concluded, “It’s 2001, and we can Fact Check your ass.”

When the audience has that kind of power, it’s wise to think hard about how you verify facts.