Can you stand it up? Those five words were the ones I probably uttered more than any other when editing a daily newspaper. Excited reporters would be fed a diet of rumours: a member of parliament has left his wife, the chief constable has been suspended. These snippets would then be thrown into the daily news conference. And, with some exaggerated world-weariness, I would ask the key question. Can you stand it up? I never heard about half of the stories again.
Our advantage was that when a lead emerged at midday, we had nine hours to stand it up. If we couldn’t make it watertight we could give ourselves another 24 hours. In today’s digital world the pressure is on to push the button as soon any unsubstantiated tale flashes across our Twitter feeds. And the rush to publish means half-baked stories, outdated pictures and factual errors appear on websites that should know better. The irony is that verification has never been easier. My staff used to tread a regular path to our library to consult Dod’s Parliamentary Companion, Bartholomew’s Gazetteer and our own cuttings. Now you can check almost everything online. So why don’t we? As Spotlight, the Oscar-winning Hollywood film on investigative journalism shows, sourcing, checking and re-checking is how you nail whether a story stands up. In the world of 24-hour news and digital everything, those traditional techniques should not be forgotten. They include:
- Be suspicious of everything. Take nothing at face-value. Check for vested interests. Trust no-one – even good contacts.
- Your job is to confirm things. If you can’t, try harder. If you really can’t, don’t publish.
- Always go to primary sources. Ask the chief constable if he is being suspended. Ask the authority chairman. If they won’t talk, find the committee members – all of them. When my neighbour was killed the local paper splashed it and got three facts wrong. Nobody from the paper had called the family (or me for that matter). Nobody bothered to make the effort. Shocking.
- Follow the two-sources rule. Get everything verified by at least two trustworthy sources. Ideally on the record.
- Use experts. There are universities, academics, specialists who will flag up credibility issues. Experts also know other experts.
- Every story has a paper trail. There are still archives (try LexisNexis), court papers, Company House, Tracesmart. Has the same mistake been made before?
- Ask yourself the key questions. What else can I look at? Who else can I talk to? Is it balanced? Did I write the headline first and make the story fit?
- Make sure the readers understand what is opinion and what is fact. And that includes the headline.
- Sweat the small stuff. Dates, spelling, names, figures, statistics. Don’t forget the who, what, why, where, when and how.
- Evaluate the risk. There are times when with all the rigorous checking, a story might still only be 99%. If instinct and public interest tell you to publish – pass it to the editor. That is what he or she is paid for. And, with the other nine rules followed thoroughly, hopefully the editor won’t need to ask the key question.
Peter Sands is the former editor of UK daily newspaper the Northern Echo and runs media consultancy Sands Media Services. This story is an extract from a longer report by First Draft’s Alastair Reed about the importance of verification to stop the spread of hoaxes and propaganda online.