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Lessons on Fact-Checking from a Georgetown Law Class

April 13, 2010

Professor Tague’s Thursday morning Criminal Justice class at the Georgetown University Law Center started like any other. Students shuffled in, took their seats, and prepared to learn the day’s lesson. According to the syllabus, Professor Tague would be lecturing about confidential sources and the validity of unnamed informants. But the students did not foresee the lesson he had in store for them that day.

Once class began, Professor Tague let his students in on a very big secret. Apparently, Chief Justice John Roberts was stepping down from the Supreme Court. Tague warned his students not to tell anyone, as this was very privileged information that must be protected. To that, his students pulled out their Blackberries, iPhones and laptops and started tweeting, chatting and Facebooking the news.

But just before class let out, Tague told his students the “secret” was in fact not true. Tague was merely reminding his students to be critical of information they received, including that received from a seemingly trustworthy source such as a Georgetown law professor. But by then the damage had already been done, and the bogus news had been circulated to thousands of people and featured by RadarOnline and the Huffington Post.

Professor Tague’s lessons don’t apply to just law students – they apply to anyone who wants to be seen as a credible source online. Fact-checking and confirming the information you distribute is vital to producing accurate content that your followers can trust. So if you’re communicating on behalf of your company or building your own online reputation, keep these tips in mind:

Straight from the Horse’s Mouth
Never assume. Make an effort to confirm with the original source that what you’ve learned is true. If that’s not possible, place a call to the next best thing, which is usually the expert in the area or an authoritative resource.

Ear to the ground
Be wary of commonly confused facts. Details such as dates, state abbreviations, name spellings and acronyms are often overlooked when fact-checking a document. Take the extra time to double-check that March 1, 2020 is in fact a Sunday and that AK stands for Alaska, not Arkansas.

Human eyes
Eye spelled checked this peace of writing be four publishing it, end everything looked grate. All kidding aside, there is no substitute for a pair of discerning eyes to proofread your work. Spell check works wonders during certain stages in editing, but it should not be your only line of defense against errors.

Egg on your Face
In the case of a mistake, correct yourself promptly. The integrity of the news you deliver far outweighs your pride. Submitting retractions, apologies, clarifications and corrections are not admitting defeat – they are your responsibility.

This shouldn’t come as news to you, but delivering information to a large group of people should be done in a tight manner free of errors and falsities. Blogs, Twitter and other informal news sources are making it easier to access announcements quicker than ever. But if that information is incorrect, your efforts to enlighten people are in vain.

Note: I originally wrote this article for the Off Madison Ave blog.

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