I had written this on a whim for The Writer. Now that it's in print, I thought I'd also post it here.
In the 2008 July/August issue of Materials Today, an article discussed a graduate student’s claims of finding evidence that Thomas Edison was involved in a conspiracy to murder a rival. Explosive stuff, that, so why didn’t the author get the piece into a major publication? There was enough evidence in the story that the writer was completely duped, if not trying to pull a fast one herself.
According to the story, Edison wrote in an 1870 diary entry that he got a call from France telling him that the man who first created the moving image, Louis Le Prince, was no more. "Eric called me today from Dijon,” said the writer’s source, who claimed to have verified the handwriting with an expert at the University of New York. “It has been done. Prince is no more. This is good news, but I flinched when he told me. Murder is not my thing. I'm an inventor and my inventions for moving images can now move forward.”
The red flags jumped all over the page. I checked the Web: the first transatlantic call occurred in 1918. Edison would have written that he had been wired, cabled, or telegraphed. There is no “University of New York,” although there are the State University of New York system of schools and New York University. The expert mentioned didn’t seem to exist, nor did the source. And “murder is not my thing?” How 1960s can you get? (There's a full account on one of my blogs
Don’t laugh, because writers – and not just beginners – get duped all the time. Back in March, for example, the Los Angeles Times had to publicly apologize for a story it ran that claimed Sean "Diddy" Combs had attacked rapper Tupac Shakur in 1994. The reason was it learned that documents vital to the reporter's story turned out to be good forgeries. Enron duped business journalists for years into thinking that they were on solid financial footing. Dan Rather and producer Mary Mapes lost their jobs at CBS over “Rathergate” and reliance on papers critical of George Bush’s military service that would later be challenged as possibly forged.
Most sources, thank heavens, don’t become anywhere nearly as problematic. Yet even in the absence of scandal, there is always the risk that someone will try using you to promote themselves as experts when they are not, pass on biased information because they have axes to grind, or simply pull a prank because they can. It's bad for the story, bad for the readers, bad for the publication, and bad for your professional reputation, because editors start to see you as an easy mark.
You don't have to be. By taking some basic precautions and learning a few techniques, you can weed out questionable material and build stronger reporting. The following 16 tips can help keep you out of hot water:
- Look for the appearance of authority. It's great that the local pizza store owner is an expert numismatist, but when seeking interviews for a freelance article, look for someone who makes a living in the coin collecting industry. The reason publications want sources qualified by third parties is the need to communicate trust to readers and to sift through all the people who will make claims with no basis. Of course experts can be wrong, but there is often a greater chance that they have some real knowledge of the topic.
- Who published that book? A growing number of public speakers and consultants, who want to strengthen their business credentials, become authors. That would be fine if they actually were writing or collaborating on books, but many of them are now going to publication mills that commission ghost writers create the manuscripts and then print copies, sometimes under their own publishing imprints. There's nothing necessarily wrong with what are essentially self-published books; the growing ease of desktop publishing and print on demand is making it easier than ever before. But if a book is self-published, the author had better be a widely acknowledged expert on the subject. A book from a major publisher, known small press, or university still offers some degree of vetting.
- Beware outlandish claims. Although you'd expect writers to understand the power and danger of the written word, many are looking so hard for something that will wow an editor that they aren't sufficiently skeptical. For years there have been some pranksters who dupe the media with often elaborately-constructed hoaxes to make a point of social commentary. But there often you can find one or more clues to something being a prank. For example, is there something that sounds too good to be believed? That should be a red flag. If you get something from an organization or business, check with directory information to see if it has a listed phone number.
- Check that web page. Putting up a web page is a trivial activity, these days. If someone offers a URL as proof of existence, use a tool like whois.net. Look up the domain (for instance, the example.org part of www.example.org). You can see when the domain was first created and last updated as well as the owner of the site. If the site was created or modified very recently or either someone other than the organization owns it (or the owner is concealed through an anonymous service), then you may be the target of a hoax.
- Ask an analyst. So many companies claim to be the top in their industry, it's a wonder that anyone is left to be second, let alone forty-second. But every industry has its market analyst firms, so search the web for one and ask about the business in question. If the expert has never heard of it, find another.
- Ask someone who's been there. Remember how Margaret B. Jones wrote a fake memoir about her life in foster care and running with gangs? How much pain the publisher Penguin Group would have avoided by talking to people who knew the gang scene in LA and asking if what she was turning in sounded plausible. No one exists in isolation, which means there are always people who should know any given person or organization, or at least will know if someone’s experience or background sounds legit. Pick up a phone and ask some of them.
- Do a web search. Go to a web search engine and look for a person's name along with any of a number of key words that could bring up red flags, such as radical or extremist; prosecuted or convicted; bankrupt or bankruptcy; and sued or lawsuit.
- Run a background check. When the topic is particularly important, you could invest as little as $10 to run a background check on someone, looking for criminal records, lawsuits, previous addresses, and property deed transfers that might back-up or refute a claim, or that could throw light on a hidden agenda or potential lack of veracity. Some major names in this are Intellius.com and Knowx.com.
- Check the corporation. Any corporation must have been incorporated somewhere, and that state will have information on its home, officers, and owners. If the person claiming to be CEO of some firm doesn’t appear anywhere in official records, there might be a problem.
- Check the non-profit. With a free basic registration on www.guidestar.com, you can look at an organization's recent IRS non-profit tax forms and learn about an organization's programs and finances. You might find something out about its objectives and intentions, as well.
- Do claims stand up? Be a little cynical. Corporations, organizations, people, and their press representatives make claims about awards, status, or standing. Do a quick check to see how they stand up. I remember having a PR firm pitch a supposed Fortune 500 company as a source for a story I was writing. I had never heard of the company before, although it was in an industry I knew. Curious, I went to Fortune Magazine's list of the Fortune 500. The company didn't appear. When confronted, the sputtering PR rep explained how his client was a "Fortune500-type" company.
- Look for the bad press. A growing number of firms and individuals try to look good by using search engine optimization techniques to create self-serving sites and stories about themselves, pushing more negative information farther down a search list. Look up the company or person, skip the first couple of pages of results, and see what a little more digging turns up. You could also search for the company name and "sucks", "sux", "I hate", and other terms of non-endearment.
- Fire up the Wayback Machine. Remember the cartoon about a dog named Peabody, his boy, Sherman (no relation), and a time travel device called the Wayback Machine? WaybackMachine.org, which keeps archives of web pages all the way back to 1996. If a company has removed potentially embarrassing information from its web site, you might find it there.
- Don’t trust email. I remember reading an article by a Providence, RI music journalist who told the story of thinking he had an email interview with a famous musician, only to find, after it was in print, that the person was a hoaxer.
- Ask a university. Many people claim degrees and school affiliations that simply never existed. If someone says she graduated from Harvard Law School in 1993, call the school and ask, being sure to ask the source for a maiden name if appropriate.
- Is the person really a veteran? There have been a number of cases where people claimed a military background or certain awards or metals although they had no connection. But you can check. It can be a bit complex, but the authors of the book Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History have instructions at their web site, www.stolenvalor.com.
And then there is the most important tool: common sense. When something in a story sounds too good to be true, take the extra few minutes to see if it is.
Labels: fact-checking, sources