Pittsburgh, PA – When asked to identify manuscript “red flags” that signal a need to verify facts, many B2B editors have no immediate response. But anyone fortunate enough to attend a series of fact-checking workshops sponsored by the American Copy Editors Society got plenty of help on how to recognize possible inaccuracies.

The occasion was ACES’ recent national conference. Delivering the highly useful “Spotting the Red Flags to Fact Check” session was ACES communication director Gerri Berendzen. No stranger to Ethics News Updates readers, she was interviewed earlier this year regarding a fact-checking training program she was developing with a special focus on digital media challenges.

“Various types of information should raise a red flag for both editors and reporters,” she told ACES attendees. “But even the simple things, like a person’s name or address, can present a chance for error.”

(Editor’s note: An important red flag side issue is whether an editor is obligated to fact-check articles posted via links to other media. At Berendzen’s suggestion, ENU conferred with Sandra Davidson. She teaches communications law at the Missouri School of Journalism and is an adjuct professor at the Missouri School of Law. Davidson’s response appears later in this article.)

Aggregate with care

During a post-workshop interview with ENU, Berendzen was asked to address red flag potential when linking to articles originally posted by newspapers, social networks and other media. Her response:

“If you work for a publication that does a lot of aggregating, you are going to run into a time that you link to something that is inaccurate. You have to treat that like you would any correction your publication does online – that is, go to the original citation and clearly mark the correction. Also use your social media to issue a correction of your link. Transparency is a good thing, and clearly marking the original can help you avoid linking to an inaccurate article over and over again.

“The key red flag here is to check out the authority of websites before you link to them. Of course, even The New York Times makes errors, but I have a higher level of trust there than I do other places on the web.

“Never link to a site that you are first seeing unless you have done some research on what that site is all about. (Does it have an agenda? Does it post a lot of corrections? Does the information posted there seem to be well checked?)”

Berendzen added: “Randomly linking to articles you aren’t involved with, and not checking them out in some way, is lazy journalism.  Aggregation is a good thing. It’s a service to your readers to expand the story. But just aggregating without thinking about what you are linking, and linking without giving credit, is unethical.”

During her ACES presentation, Berendzen cited ten specific examples of “things that should raise red flags”:

  • Information or visuals that do not ring true. Build and trust your BS detector.
  • Numbers – including dollar amounts and rankings.
  • Data and polls, especially data that seems to be cherry picked. Look for the science behind a poll and its completeness.
  • Inconsistency and repetition.
  • Hearsay.
  • Out-of-context examples and references.
  • Visuals that are meant to distract or misrepresent or seemingly are selected to prove a particular point.
  • Innuendo.
  • Biased sources.
  • Absolutes. Look for “the only,” “the best,” “the number one,” “highest,” “worst” statements.

Must aggregated info be fact-checked?

Cases arise where aggregated content may be inaccurate. To what extent, then, are aggregating editors required to fact-check details prior to posting a link to the source? The following view was provided by University of Missouri’s Sandra Davidson:

“So long as you are not espousing, and so long as you are merely providing a hyperlink, and so long as you do not have actual knowledge that what you are linking to is false, I do believe you should be safe as far as legal liability is concerned. ‘Republication’ of a libel occurs if you in fact republish the libel. But a hyperlink merely permits an individual to go to a site if the individual decides to do so.

“The ethical issue is perhaps the harder one. Should you link to something that you have not vetted? My reaction is that if you had to vet everything, this would certainly have a chilling effect on the flow of information. Must a researcher writing in an area who wants to footnote the most recent literature also read every line of every article to see if factual errors exist?

“With the deluge of information coming down, the standard of double-checking everything becomes a virtual impossibility, in my view. But if you have reason to doubt the veracity of an article, then surely an ethical problem would arise if you used it anyway. Then the ‘red flag’ has gone up and must not be ignored.

“For me, I like citing to law review articles in part because I know they have gone through a fact-checking process, thanks to the person power available in the form of law students who work as staff for law reviews. I do not have the same confidence in other types of academic articles where I am not sure about the fact-checking process.”