How to Fact-Check History
How fact-checkers distinguish between facts and opinions.
How fact-checkers consult primary and historical sources in order to verify the claims made in a story.
How fact-checking can be used to debunk mistaken media narratives.
- Media/News Literacy
- U.S. History
- Civics and Government
- 1980s America
- 1990s America
- Civic Engagement
- Media Literacy
- News Literacy
- Social Media
- The Media
The flood of information spilling across social networks into classrooms has led to cries for more “fact-checking,” but what exactly is that? How do you do it – especially if you’re trying to check something that happened decades ago?
In this video, Joe Hogan, head of fact-checking at Retro Report, answers those questions, and explains why fact-checking is a needed skill today, whether you’re making a video, writing a news story, or just trying to stay informed.
“History is full of lessons,” Joe says. “And to really understand those lessons, you have to understand what actually happened.”
Joe’s job is to make sure that happens. He verifies every claim made in a Retro Report video to ensure it is accurate; if it isn’t, it’s corrected. And he pursues his craft with the skills of a prosecutor making a case in court.
If someone claims that Donald Trump was sworn in as president on Thursday, January 17th, 2017, wearing a blue tie, Joe checks every claim in that sentence: the month, the day, the year, the ceremony, that Trump was in fact there, and was being sworn in as president. And, yes, even the color of his tie.
Joe evaluates every claim in every Retro Report that way, whether it’s made by the producer writing the script, an expert commenting in an interview, or a date on a piece of historical footage.
And if that footage claims it’s showing a picture of the Detroit skyline in 1956, Joe will examine other pictures and footage to make sure that was in fact how the Detroit skyline really looked in 1956.
Fact-checking historical events can pose a challenge, especially at Retro Report, which often uses archival material to context current events, so they can be better understood. But every claim, old or new, still must be checked.
To do that, Joe tries to get as close to an event as possible. He reads newspaper accounts from the time, talks to people who were there, consults reliable histories, even talks to historians themselves, to learn as much as he can about what happened and why. All that gives him a bank of expertise that helps him understand the history around an event and verify the claims being made about it.
This may seem like a lot of work but there’s a lot at stake.
In 1995, a researcher at Princeton University predicted that by 2000, the U.S. would soon be overrun by “super- predators,” incorrigible criminals, many of them young black males.
The media picked up on the idea, and soon states across the country were passing laws to crack down on juvenile offenders,
Unfortunately, the researcher later admitted his predictions were dead wrong, but by then the damage was done.
“The idea of the super-predator lasted,” Joe says. “And led to a lot of very stringent laws and policies being passed that ultimately contributed to our current very big problem of mass incarceration.”
Can all claims or statements be fact-checked? How does a fact-checker decide which claims or statements to check?
In the video, Joseph Hogan (the fact-checker) mentions that he often consults “peer reviewed” historical articles. What do you think he means by “peer reviewed” articles? Do you know—or have a guess—as to how a “peer reviewed” article might be different from a regular publication or article?
The fact-checker mentions that some stories are misleading because of a “lie of omission.” How did a “lie of omission” affect the stories told about the McDonald’s lawsuit? What important details about the hot coffee lawsuit were often omitted from media narratives?
The video mentions a mistaken media narrative from the 1990s regarding “super-predators.” What were the causes of the media’s mistake in creating that narrative?
How has the rise of digital media and the internet made it easier to spread false information? Why do you think false stories are often more likely to be shared on social media than true stories? Have you ever mistakenly passed on a story (either online or offline) that you later found out to be incorrect?
When you see information on the internet that you don’t fully believe, do you ever “fact-check” the story yourself by searching out other sources? Do you ever see friends or family passing around news stories or information that you don’t think are reliable? What do you do when you see those stories?
In the video, Joseph Hogan (the fact-checker) says it’s important to look at who is claiming something in a story, and why they might be claiming it. Why do you think this is important? How does the source of the story, and the motives of that source, potentially affect the reliability of the information in the story?
In your opinion, should social media companies accept more responsibility for the information shared on their platforms? If companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are being used to share false stories, should those companies have a greater role to play in checking the facts of the stories? What are the potential costs and benefits of relying on those companies to verify the stories that circulate on their platforms?
Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
Identify evidence from multiple sources to detect inconsistencies in order to revise or strengthen claims.
Skill 5D: Use refutation, concession, or rebuttal in responding to opposing perspectives.
Theme: Civic Participation in a Representative Democracy (PRD)