A fact checker, as you might guess, goes over stories to ensure the facts check out. A fact checker will often work in a research department at a magazine or for a TV news show.
Fact checking is one of those oft discussed jobs within the industry that many people outside of the media world don’t know too much about. The main thing a fact checker does is go over a story meticulously to confirm all the facts within it. This means confirming everything from a subject’s age to what they’ve said.
How Does the Fact Checker Get ‘Nothing But the Facts’?
In order to ensure an article’s accuracy a fact checker must rely on two skills: independent research and, to an extent, reporting skills. If a reporter makes an assertion in a story -- for example, Christopher Columbus came to America in 1492 -- a fact checker needs to confirm this is true. To do so they’ll need to research the facts and, if need be, make calls to confirm those facts. (If a fact checker was, say, confirming the title of a person mentioned in a story, they would not simply Google that title. Instead they would call that person, or the company the person works for, to get the information.)
The other big thing a fact checker does is talk to sources. A fact checker needs to make sure that everything a reporter says someone said was, in fact, said. This means calling sources who’ve been quoted in a piece, or paraphrased, and going over their statements with them.
Where a Fact Checker's Skill Comes In
If a fact checker’s job sounds easy, it’s not. There is actually quite a bit of skill involved, especially for talking to sources. Aside from needing good research skills -- and having an instinct for knowing when a fact has actually been confirmed -- a fact checker needs to be able to confirm details with a source without watering down, or altering, the story itself. This can be very tricky. Because a journalist’s job is often about getting someone to say something they might not want to say, a fact checker needs to be wary of sources changing their minds after the fact. Often, when you give a source the opportunity to go back over what they’ve said, they might wish they had said things differently and try to change their original comment. A fact checker wants to make sure this doesn’t happen, but still ensure a quote or characterization is accurate.
To illustrate the artistry involved in fact checking, an example might help. Let’s say you’re fact checking a story about a murder, a husband killing his wife, in a quiet suburban neighborhood. The story has a quote from the couple’s neighbor that goes like this: “I always thought Rob was nuts.” Now that’s a very strong statement. When you’re fact checking that quote with the neighbor, you want to be careful not to give him the opportunity to change what he said. How do you do this? It can be tricky. People often say fact checkers should not read a source their quote directly. (After all, if you say to the neighbor: “Did you say, ‘I always thought Rob was nuts’?” The neighbor might very well respond that he doesn’t think Rob is nuts. He thinks Rob might be unhinged, maybe, but not nuts.) The fact checker finally needs to make this call. Often the fact checker will need to go back and forth with a source and much of the conversation might entail pointing out the difference between what a source thinks now and what a source said then.
Shouldn’t a Reporter to Be His Own Fact Checker?
The quick answer to this question is, yes. Fact checkers don’t exist so that reporters can be lazy. They exist as a second line of defense to ensure that mistakes don’t. On a legal front fact checkers also exist so that, should someone get angry and threaten to sue over something in a story, a publication has multiple people who can back up the veracity of the facts. If, for example, a source claims they were misquoted in a piece and threatens to sue over it, it’s better to have a reporter (who hopefully has the comment recorded) to confirm it was said as well as a fact checker who can say they also confirmed it.