A beginner’s guide to fact checking
by Dr Orna YOUNG for FactCheckNI
4 September 2019
Fact checking can be done by anyone. We at FactCheckNI train groups to ensure that individuals can determine the accuracy of their news. There are simple questions and steps we can all take when considering information online:
When you read or view information online, or anywhere, a primary consideration should be “who said it?”. In relation to online information, the source of a tweet or a blog article will ensure you have an immediate sense if the information is coming from a particular perspective or has a particular agenda. Similarly, considering “who” is disseminating data, for example, will ensure you are engaging with reliable, official sources, such as recognised authorities like the Northern Ireland Statistics Research Agency (NISRA).
It is necessary to establish if information being shared is a fact, or indeed, an opinion. A simple mechanism to check this is to ask yourself “can this be backed up by facts?”. In addition to this, it is important to gauge if the information is being fully shared, or if one particular aspect of the story is being focused on. A simple way to do this is to read more than one source on a particular story. This will help you establish if any information is being left out, or perhaps being deliberately magnified.
Considering where a particular story or piece of information is being shared is vital. A very basic test is whether it is being shared in public or private. Once this has been established, you can then consider whether it is being shared to a particular audience — i.e. one which the author or speaker thought may be sympathetic to a particular perspective, and therefore presented accordingly. Similarly, it is helpful to consider if the information was shared on a forum which would invite debate or alternative perspectives.
The timing of publication may reveal a lot about a particular piece of information. For example, was the information shared before, during or after an important event? This is particularly important in an age where so much that goes on the World Wide Web stays there. Therefore, timing and context are key.
The “why” in this list is difficult to establish (particularly in the realm of fact checking, which for FactCheckNI should not attempt to judge intention). However, for citizens it may help to differentiate between opinions and facts. It also allows individuals to incorporate their cultural context and awareness into how they are engaging with different media. Is a piece of information being shared to put a particular slant on a story? Is there a wider political/social/economic agenda? A good fact-checker not only proves or disproves a claim, but also provides context so that the consumer of the information can have a broader understanding of the discussion.
How a piece of information is shared is also a key consideration in fact checking. This considers:
- The language — is it inflammatory? Is it immediately biased? Could it have been clearer?
- The tone — could it be considered?
- The platform — is it in a statement? Has it been shared on a social media platform which invites debate? How public is it?
In considering all of the above, individuals will automatically be engaged with information from a more critical standpoint, which encourages us all to be fewer passive consumers of news and information.
Article republished at Co-Inform.