The American Press Institute published a call for better fact-checking on July 8, 2016. The authors, Jane Elizabeth of the American Press Institute and Alexios Mantzarlis of the Poynter Institute, set forth a checklist of items for fact checkers to consider as benchmarks.
Without further ado:
“Be the best about sourcing”
Though we have worked to stand second-to-none in sourcing our stories and fact-checks we found a suggestion from Elizabeth and Mantzarlis that we’re eager to carry out. The authors called for fact checkers to link to specific pages in .pdf documents. We did not know that was an option, but it does seem possible.
“Be transparent with your audience”
With this item, Elizabeth and Mantzarlis have a particular type of transparency in mind:
Just as readers need to know the source of your facts, they also should know why you choose the statement you’re checking. Make it part of your fact-check format. Be specific in noting why the statement matters. (And if you don’t specifically know the answer to that, you might want to reconsider your topic.)
Though we’ve never considered devoting a specific heading to justifying your topics, we tend to offer explanations about why we choose our fact checks. Sometimes that reason is implicit, as when we find fault with fact checks from PolitiFact or FactCheck.org: We are cautioning readers not to place too much trust in fact checkers.
The last paragraph in that section, we think, explains why Elizabeth and Mantzarlis included this section. They say publishing such explanations may help deflect criticisms of fact checker impartiality. If that is the case, it follows that picking good fact check topics shrinks the need to explain why the fact checker chose the topic.
“Be transparent with your subjects”
Elizabeth and Mantzarlis encourage fact checkers to have their procedures “standardized and explained with every fact check.” The link they used to illustrate their point left us a bit puzzled, as it consisted of a brief description of the general fact-checking approach at AZ Fact Check. We think it makes good sense to publish such general descriptions (Zebra Fact Check describes a number of its procedures on separate pages). But we think no fact check service explains its procedures with every fact check. To us, that seems like a waste of space. We recommend providing such explanations only for cases where it seems likely some readers will wonder about the fact-checking procedure.
Elizabeth and Mantzarlis also recommend publishing interviews and email trails. We believe Zebra Fact Check was the first fact checker to make that a standard policy. But we tip our cap to PolitiFact Texas for inspiring the idea with its occasional publication of email interviews.
“Justify your topic”
We take this item as another case where Elizabeth and Mantzarlis suggest reining in fact checkers’ tendency to allow ideology to influence their story selection. The authors say fact checkers cannot check opinions or predictions. We say the reality is that there is no absolute boundary between fact and opinion, and we say some predictions are reasonably subject to fact checks.
When a fact checker chooses to fact check either an opinion or a prediction, the importance of including an explanation increases sharply.
The next several items need little explanation, so we will respond to each topic with our assessment of Zebra Fact Check’s standing on the topic.
“Watch your tone”
We adopt a neutral tone for fact checks. We also publish fact-based commentary. In the latter articles we allow ourselves greater tonal latitude.
“Be diligent about follow-ups and corrections”
We go beyond seeking diligence about our own follow-ups and corrections by pressuring other fact checkers to pursue similar diligence.
“Communicate with the community”
We think we stand second to none among fact checkers in communicating about our fact checks, including responding with substance to criticism of our work.
If Zebra Fact Check does not have the most detailed explanations of its procedures, at least it has the rating system best attached to objective measures.
“Show off your ethics”
We hope our ethical principles are seamlessly embedded in our published principles on methodology and transparency. Which is not to say Zebra Fact Check could not improve in this area.
Overall, Elizabeth and Mantzarlis produced a good set of ideals for fact-checking. We found at least two suggestions that could improve Zebra Fact Check. If we have one bone to pick with the article, it stems from the methods intended to decrease the appearance of bias. We’re not convinced that teaching biased fact checkers to seem less biased is a clear improvement. Teaching biased fact checkers to rein in their bias counts as an improvement. We’re for changing the reality, not just the appearance.