NARRATION: You hear a lot these days about fact- checking.
ARCHIVAL (KTVU, 5-28-20):
DAVE CLARKE: Fact-checking.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 10-15-20):
CHRIS CUOMO: Fact-checking – you gotta do it.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 9-29-20):
NORA O’DONNELL: Fact-checking.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 10-08-20):
JAKE TAPPER: Is that true?
DANIEL DALE: Jake, it is indeed false.
NARRATION: But what exactly is fact-checking? How does it work? How do you fact-check something that happened decades, or even centuries ago? And why does it matter?
TEXT ON SCREEN: Meet Joe Hogan, fact-checker at Retro Report
JOSEPH HOGAN: To describe it simply, fact-checking is making sure that a claim is true. You take whatever sentence you’re checking or whatever claim you’re checking and you try to determine the best way to verify each fact.
What you really have to do as a fact-checker is approach each claim as a prosecutor would, you’re putting the claim on trial and you want to get to a position where a judge and jury would, say, “Yes, that claim is true.”
So let’s say I have to fact-check the following sentence. Donald Trump took the oath of office on Thursday, January 17th, 2017, wearing a fantastic blue tie. I would have to verify that Donald Trump did indeed take the oath of office, that he did it on January 17th, 2017, that January 17th, 2017 was a Thursday. That he was wearing a blue tie when he took the oath of office. The one claim that I wouldn’t have to check is that the blue tie was fantastic because that’s a statement of opinion.
And just for the record, Trump took the oath of office on January 20th, that was a Friday and he was wearing a red tie.
NARRATION: That’s a more recent example, but here’s how you go about checking something historical.
JOSEPH HOGAN: You want to get as close to the event as possible. So you don’t necessarily want to use articles written recently about the event because those haven’t necessarily been fact-checked and they’re far away from the event. Try to find newspaper accounts from the time. Talk to people who were there and try to verify what they say and what they remember as best you can with archival material, newspaper reports, things like that, images, video or footage, film from the event.
The best way to fact-check historical events that happened not 40 years ago, but 400 years ago, look to the work of historians. What sources do they cite? Often it’ll be letters. It would be hard for me just working on my computer to find a newspaper in the 1700s. But they exist in archives and historians have used them.
So if at Retro Report I check a claim about something that happened in a political convention in the 18000s. I do go to the work of historians and I check their peer reviewed work. And I look at the footnotes they use cause they footnote their their books and I talk to them.
NARRATION: Fact-checking is important to the work of historians, but also to Retro Report because the first draft of history isn’t always right – so we aim to correct the record and be the second draft of history.
JOSEPH HOGAN: And fact-checking is very important to that, because in order to find out what really happened in history, we have to make sure we get the facts straight. A lot of what we focus on is how certain media narratives say 20, 30 years ago, the first draft of history, how those were covered at the time, how people expected those issues to play out and how they actually played out.
NARRATION: One example is a story we did looking back at the idea of the superpredator. In 1995 a professor at Princeton University predicted that by the year 2000 the U.S. would see a huge increase of what he called “superpredators” – young, extremely violent criminals, many of whom he thought could be “black males.”
JOHN J. DILULIO, JR (PROFESSOR OF POLITICS, RELIGION AND CIVIL SOCIETY, UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA): You’d have a doubling or a tripling in the rate of youth violence in the time between the mid 90s and up to, through the mid 2000s.
NARRATION: The prediction got A LOT of attention.
ARCHIVE (ABC, 6-19-96):
HERBERT HOELTER: Superpredator…
ARCHIVE (ABC, 6-18-96):
ARCHIVE (NBC, 2-15-96):
ARCHIVE (CBS, 4-9-96):
BERNIE GOLDBERG: Superpredators…
NARRATION: And almost every state passed new laws making it easier to prosecute juveniles as adults – meaning young offenders were more likely to face life in prison.
But when we tracked down the professor nearly 20 years later, he admitted he’d made a big mistake.
JOHN J. DILULIO, JR.: The superpredator idea was wrong. Once it was out there though, it was out there. There was no reeling it in.
BARRY KRISBERG (FORMER CRIMINOLOGIST, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY): It was a myth, and unfortunately it was a myth that some academics jumped onto. The fear over the superpredator led to a tremendous number of laws and policies that we are just now recovering from.
NARRATION: But it’s not just about getting your facts right – you need to get the general gist of the story right, too.
JOSEP HOGAN: There can be a lot of examples of bad facts or there can be examples of bad news narratives. They are sometimes hard to distinguish. Fact-checking can help with both problems, though.
NARRATION: You might have heard the story of the woman who went to McDonald’s, spilled hot coffee on herself, then sued McDonald’s and won millions in the lawsuit. It’s kind of part of our cultural folklore.
ARCHIVAL (CBS THE LATE LATE SHOW WITH CRAIG FERGUSON):
CRAIG FERGUSON: Oooh, my coffee was too hot! It’s coffee!
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 8-18-94):
JANE PAULEY: It seems she was holding a cup between her legs while driving.
ARCHIVAL (HBO “HOT COFFEE,” 4-22-11):
CALA RADIO AD: She spilled hot coffee on her lap while sitting in her car and claimed it was too hot. Every day we hear about another outrageous lawsuit.
JOSEPH HOGAN: The media and just people in the culture heard about this case and thought the significance of the case was, look at all these frivolous lawsuits that people can file. Unless they really looked into it, news organizations really looked into it no one really understood how horribly this woman was burned and how serious her injuries were.
I would consider that in a way, a lie of omission because saying she was simply burned is misrepresenting the story by allowing the reader to think it wasn’t a big burn. It was a horrible burn. The thing that a fact-checker would do that in that instance is, yes, check off that yes, she was burned. But also ask, is this, is the way we’re phrasing this, giving the wrong impression about what actually happened? Are we leaving out facts that are necessary to the story?
NARRATION: As you can see, it can be difficult to know who or what to trust. So how do you know if a source is reputable and trustworthy?
JOSEPH HOGAN: When you find something on the Internet don’t just take it at face value. Ask yourself, where is this coming from? Who is claiming it and why possibly are they claiming it? And try to find out as much as you can about a source before you trust it.
NARRATION: Fact-checking can help set the record straight so that we can learn from our mistakes and hopefully not make them again.
JOSEPH HOGAN: History is full of lessons. And to really understand those lessons, you have to understand what actually happened.
TEXT ON SCREEN: Here are some fact-checking sites you can trust.
Poynter Fact Checking
The New York Times Fact Check