This piece originally appeared on Contently’s The Freelance Creative
In traditional journalism, diligent fact-checking is a given. In a recent piece I wrote on abortion, the editor required that I verify every statistic, claim, or data point with a news source or expert.
When it comes to freelance content marketing, however, the parameters are often less clear. This type of work is not journalism, strictly speaking. When a brand is behind a story, there’s bias involved. But that doesn’t mean that all journalistic rigor should go out the window. Fact-checking is still a critical part of the process.
“Fact-checking for my content marketing stories is just as essential as it is for my editorial work,” saidAnna Dimond, a journalist, content creator, and producer. “What separates excellent content marketing from the mediocre, in part, is care and attention to detail. I treat every story as a valuable source of information for readers—and a valuable gateway to a brand.”
Let’s take a look at why marketing writers and editors should take fact-checking seriously—and how they can do so without spending all day, every day looking up stats and references.
Whether I’m penning a reported piece, ghostwriting, or composing a blog post for a brand, there are a few fact-checking measures I always take. Some are obvious, like making sure I’m spelling names right and getting sources’ pronouns correct. I also ensure I’m citing studies accurately and attributing quotes from interviews to the right people.
But after that, it gets more nuanced. As a content marketer, what’s my responsibility to double-check that information cited in a third-party article is accurate? Do I need to parse the fine print of a scientific study every time I cite a statistic? Although the answers aren’t always clear-cut, Dimond noted that accuracy is a huge part of a writer’s—and a brand’s—credibility.
“The more reliable and high-quality [the content] is for readers, the more it confers trust in and value of the brand behind it,” Dimond said. “If a reader can’t depend on the basic facts of a blog post, it’s a clear message that they can’t trust the brand.”
In a rapidly evolving digital media landscape, reader trust is precious. Today’s newsfeeds are so rife with “fake news” that the edges between fact and fiction are often blurry. When you fail to take the necessary precautions, it not only creates a credibility issue, but may also perpetuate misinformation.
Fact-checking becomes even more important when you’re writing about sensitive topics. Today, many brands strive to tell diverse perspectives and amplify underrepresented narratives. In these cases, it’s critical to get the details right. Dimond recalled writing a piece about how the parents of transgender children have translated their parenting lessons into business and leadership decisions. She called the fact-checking process for the story “intricate.”
“But in the end, it represented [the sources] and their stories in ways they wanted, while underscoring the brand’s depth, compassion, and care,” she said, adding that it also helped establish trust with her sources and strengthened her relationship with the editor. “I’m really proud of the final product.”
A final reason to be vigilant about accuracy in marketing is that there may be legal ramifications for spreading misinformation. Many companies that hire freelancers include indemnification clauses in their contracts, meaning that the writer may be on the hook should a lawsuit result from their published work. The last thing a writer wants to think about is building a legal defense because they didn’t appropriately fact-check a claim in a piece that wrestles with ambiguities.
Putting a piece out into the world knowing it contains no factual errors is about more than just peace of mind. “It’s about bulletproofing your work,” said Amy George, former Associated Press reporter and founder of By George Communications.
As a freelancer, each of your clients will have a different fact-checking policy (or lack thereof). You may be responsible for the process, or the publication may have in-house fact-checkers who handle it.
If you’ll be responsible for the task, you’ll want to have a grip on the basics, which include combing through the document and verifying names are spelled correctly, academic degrees are accurate, and titles are up to date. Double-check dates, locations, and timelines, and be sure that any claims you’ve made are verifiable. Note all third-party-sourced information via hyperlink or comment.
There are a few standard “rules” to citing sources, too: First and foremost, never rely on Wikipedia. Secondly, don’t copy/paste statistics from another publication without verifying the data in the original study or report. Finally, if the information comes from social media, make sure it’s true before you regurgitate it in print or online. When in doubt, find another source to cite.
When it comes to citing studies, it’s important to look at them with a critical eye. You can read the executive summary to figure out when the study was conducted and the criteria used. George recommended asking the following questions: Is it an independent study? When and how was it conducted? How trustworthy is the source? Are there any potential conflicts of interest?
If you’re working on a piece that involves original reporting, there are proactive steps you can take during interviews to make the fact-checking process easier later on. Make sure you record the interview (let the source know you’re doing this first). Sites like Otter.AI or Rev can help with the transcription, but it’s a good idea to listen through the audio yourself and cross-reference the transcript’s text before cementing quotes in your story.
Finally, when you’re writing the content, match the actual quote with the recording to determine if you’ve phrased it correctly in your copy. For every original source, note the person’s name, email, and phone number in case the editor or fact-checker wants to contact them directly. To be extra safe, give your sources a heads up about the facts/figures that directly pertain to them before the story goes live, and give them the opportunity to correct any inaccuracies.
There are a ton of resources out there to help writers verify information. Below are a few of the most common and helpful.
For writers who want to hone their fact-checking skills further, there are a variety of courses available. The Check, Please! Starter Course, partially funded by RTI International and the Rita Allen Foundation via the Misinformation Solutions Forum Prize, is a free, five-lesson course for beginners. Poynter Institute offers a Hands-On Fact-Checking course that focuses on identifying reliable sources, debunking viral misinformation, and deciding whether a statement is credible; it takes about 90 minutes to complete and costs $14.95. The Knight Center also offers a Disinformation and Fact-Checking in Times of COVID-19 course for free.
Finally, if you’re more of a visual learner, YouTuber John Green has partnered with the Poynter Institute and Stanford History Education Group to share a set of YouTube videos on fact-checking and identifying digital disinformation.
Keep in mind that even as a marketer, the written word holds power: Your particular piece may inform a reader’s decision or nudge them to change course in some way. Ensuring accurate details helps tell the bigger picture, whether for a journalistic publication or a corporate entity.