Why Failing to Fact-Check Could Ruin Your Content MarketingBy Cara Cannella September 16th, 2016
My name is Cara, and I’m a recovering fact-checker. After more than a decade as a freelance researcher at publications like Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Bon Appétit, I process information through a skeptic’s eye.
Whether it’s fine print on a Dr. Bronner’s soap label, a recipe, or an Instagram caption, I question the accuracy of everything I read. (Everything, that is, except The New Yorker.)
My time as a researcher may be over, but I still rely on many of the same skills now that I help manage Contently’s editorial services. If you’re a content marketer, you need someone like me on your team—someone who inhaled Nancy Drew books as a kid, solves mundane mysteries, and likes to get to the root of things.
Brands with upstart publishing operations have a tendency to hire one primary editor and pile fact-checking on top of the editor’s responsibilities. But I recommend bringing in a second person to have more of a focus on validating the content. It always helps for an article to pass multiple sets of eyes during the editing process. Also, an individual who owns a well-defined task is more likely to take pride in it and be accountable. Think of a fact-checker as your designated driver, greatly increasing the likelihood that you’ll arrive safely at your final destination.
By adding fact-checking to your workflow, you reduce your company’s risk of publishing inaccuracies that could damage your reputation. Take NBC, which could’ve used a better workflow when Brian Williams was removed as the network’s evening news anchor, in February 2015, after it was discovered—and quickly amplified on social media—that he embellished his role in a helicopter attack in Iraq and other reporting experiences. Had he been fact-checked effectively, the scandal could have been avoided.
Ideally, the checker should take precautions listed in the classic, indispensable book The Fact-Checker’s Bible: A Guide to Getting It Right and on trusted sites like Poynter. Even a benign inaccuracy, like a writer miscalculating the distance between two cities, could discount your credibility with an audience.
Depending on the length and depth of your content, a relatively small investment of time and money could minimize your brand’s vulnerability to a libel or defamation lawsuit.
According to Peter Canby, who directs the 18-person research department at The New Yorker, a publication known for its zero-tolerance approach to factual ambiguity, an effective checker is “a person with diplomatic skills and a sense of humor—someone with a scholar’s eye for detail and also the curiosity of a generalist.”
From his point of view, the key to a successful fact-checking operation is empowering the checkers to ask big-picture questions without fear. That’s why he looks for diplomatic skills. Checkers have to be unafraid to ask even the most basic-seeming questions.
“They can’t be obstructionist but need to have faith that if they don’t understand something, chances are that someone else won’t either,” he wrote in an email.
Since the magazine’s founding editor, Harold Ross, established its research department in 1927, as detailed by Ben Yagoda in About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, a team of full-time checkers has investigated its every statement, including those made in poems.
Knowing that, I can relax into the magazine’s familiar font and trust what I read. I still apply critical thinking to ideas, but I believe claims I come across to be true, or at least verified through a reliable source. That faith allows me to focus on higher-level appreciation and analysis of the stories.
The New Yorker works hard to earn that trust, and the resulting relationship is mutually beneficial. I’m a loyal subscriber, and I regularly advocate for its quality through casual conversation and on social media. Are you willing to expend the effort required to attract that kind of devoted audience?
“The good news these days is anyone can be a publisher. The bad news is anyone can be a publisher,” said Rod Kurtz, a New York-based media strategist and editor-at-large for Contently. “There’s a lot of crap out there, and high standards for accuracy can help your brand stand out.”
With more than a decade of experience working in newsrooms and managing editorial teams, Kurtz looks at the content marketing process through a similar mindset. “It’s helpful to establish research guidelines in advance,” he explained. “It can be tough to correct for mistakes once the bus is running.” Brands can institute standards with a style guide or a standalone document that gets shared with every contributor.
Since marketing teams work on tight deadlines, often with limited resources, it can be tempting to skip these steps. If checking facts for accuracy hasn’t been a priority until this point, you’re not alone. As a writer and editor transitioning from traditional journalism to branded content, I’ve seen many companies adopt a hope-for-the-best approach to publishing unverified claims as truths. Content marketing is a relatively young field, and as with any new venture, it takes time to develop awareness of best practices. But I’m starting to advocate for brands to invest more in the research process.
When done right, fact-checking can be a thankless task. Accuracy tends to be more expected than rewarded. But the job can still be incredibly gratifying.
When I worked at Vanity Fair for six weeks, I shared fact-checking duties for Andrew Ross Sorkin’s November 2009 story about the 2008 financial collapse. Much of my work was tied directly to characters and plot lines from last year’s Oscar-winning The Big Short, which I recently watched.1 Because I examined the subject matter in depth, I know that the movie checks out. And because I appreciate its accuracy—and Ryan Gosling in a starring role, which never hurts—I’ve told anyone who would listen over the past few weeks to watch it.
I think you’ll appreciate it, too, but don’t take my word for it. Like a good researcher, discover the truth for yourself.Image by Getty