Why our Fact Check program is a crucial step away from traditional print media thinking

My column in The Register Citizen this week providing an update on the “Fact Check” program got lots of attention, thanks to John PatonJay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis, Craig Newmark and others.

This is a very simple concept that started with our newspaper’s website in May and quickly spread to the rest of Journal Register Company under the leadership of Paton and Vice President of Content Jonathan Cooper. Provide a visible and easy way for readers and sources to challenge the facts in your news reporting. We did it through a “Fact Check” form on our home page. Last week, we switched to having one of these forms at the bottom of every story that we publish on the website.

Regarding all the attention, a key point to make here is that The Register Citizen is not on the vanguard of accuracy in journalism. We’re a small (8,000 print circulation with a larger and engaged digital audience of 140,000-plus monthly unique visitors) community daily, with a small, inexperienced staff. We have a huge problem with accuracy, not to mention basic grammar and spelling mistakes.

And we were hyperlocal before it was a buzzword … always have been. That’s why this works so well for us: First of all, we need it. Second, if you’re writing about a neighborhood issue, residents of that neighborhood, our readers, are going to know better than anyone else what the facts are.

Megan Taylor asked what percentage of Fact Check reports are useful. Surprisingly, about 80 percent have been, the rest consisting of spam, opinions about the article in question that would have been better suited to the story comment function, or just completely irrelevant messages.

Of the 80 percent that were useful, most pointed out “minor” errors such as spelling mistakes, or a reference to “Elm Street” instead of “Elm Avenue.” But about 20 percent of the “useful” Fact Check reports have raised substantial and legitimate factual errors or misrepresentations in the referenced story.

Terry Olson asked about manpower in responding to Fact Check reports.

We are trying to get our entire newsroom staff (17 people total) reading and engaging with online story comments (we get a lot of them for a paper our size), because they often advance the story so much further (especially as we report “digital first, print last” … mistakes are caught, new angles discovered, context enriched over the course of a day of reporting by having the audience involved from the beginning) and it extends the reporter’s sourcing, potentially, to the entire community.

So having them verify, use and respond to Fact Check reports is only a small incremental part of that workflow we’ve already tried to establish.

Which is a good segue to the comment made by ARLnow.Com. This local news site in Arlington, Va., used the example of a motorcycle accident story to show that active engagement by reporters and editors with readers who are using story comments to point out errors can accomplish the same thing.

I couldn’t agree more. Having a separate online form attached to every story that says “Fact Check” in bold letters and explains to the reader that we encourage them to correct us or provide context is a way to hammer home to the audience that we want them to hold us accountable, that the process is transparent, and that we welcome it.

Once we can build a tradition of audience engagement and trust, the more gimmicky feel of a “Fact Check” box won’t be necessary. But in making the transition from closed-off legacy print media practices, it is an important statement to our readers right now.


One thought on “Why our Fact Check program is a crucial step away from traditional print media thinking

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s