It came as no surprise when post-truth was chosen as the 2016 word of the year by the Oxford Dictionaries.
In today’s world fake news and alternative facts have superseded real news and hard facts.
That’s why it’s more important than ever that when writing a story, first you must research your subject properly.
When I was at journalism college the No.1 quality that was drilled into us was that a story must always be accurate, balanced and fair.
That requires thorough fact checking to make sure that what you are saying is correct, helps you get to the bottom of a story and is not going to land you in legal trouble.
Here is my five-step guide on to how to research your subject thoroughly:
1) Use bona fide sources
- While Wikipedia may be one of the most convenient and readily available sources, coming out at the top of most search engines, it can often also be incorrect or biased depending on the contributor(s).
- Wherever possible try to get a first hand account from the relevant person(s) concerned rather than relying on second hand sources.
- Where you have to use second hand sources look for reputable publications such as the BBC; many have archives in their offices that are not available on the Internet that could be a potential gold mine of information. However, be careful; just because a story has been published doesn’t mean it is factually correct.
- Libraries are another good source of information; make sure though that you check to see if the file or publication is available before you go there so you’re not wasting your time.
- When searching for a person on the Internet, use double quotation marks around their name to help narrow down your search results. There is also a lot of information out there, but it may not be relevant, so be as specific as possible in your search terms.
- Twitter can be another good way of finding sources and information, however you need to be careful about privacy, particularly when it relates to children under 13. To narrow your search, search by using hashtags and the subject you are looking for to find a particular topic or event.
- Remember, it is your job to double check your facts to make sure that they are accurate.
2) Do your homework
- If you have arranged to interview a source as part of your research, make sure you prepare thoroughly beforehand.
- Think carefully about what you want to get out of the interview, how you want your story to look like and what questions you need to ask to get the information or viewpoint you are seeking.
- Write down your questions in the order you want to ask them, but be prepared to change them depending on how the interview is going. Some interviewers prefer to ask the hard questions up front if they are pressed for time or want to get straight to the point, while others favour dropping them once the interviewee has been softened up with some easy preliminary questions.
- The best kind of questions are open ones that allow you to get a fuller answer and encourage the interviewee to give you more information. Closed questions can also be useful when you are trying to ascertain a specific fact or are seeking confirmation of something.
- Read up about both the person and subject in order to develop a strategy for interviewing them. Above all, make sure that you understand the subject and know what you are talking about before you go into the interview.
- Ask people who know them well about the person you are going to be interviewing and what their character is like.
- Find a venue that is both comfortable and convenient for the interviewee, where they feel relaxed and are more likely to speak freely. For those who may be untrusting of reporters or unwilling to give much away it is good to have an ice breaker up your sleeve that allows them to drop their guard and open up more.
- When you start the interview listen very carefully and take shorthand notes of the key facts needed for your research and use a voice recorder (with fully charged batteries) to capture the whole conversation if there is something you later need to go back and check. It can also be used as evidence to prove that you quoted them accurately if they later come back and claim they were misquoted.
- To make it easier when you transcribing, note down the time of the key moments of the interview.
- Make sure that you check all the key facts such as names, ages, dates, times, places and spellings. After all, nothing annoys people more than getting their name spelling wrong.
3) There’s no such thing as a stupid question
- When you are researching a story leave no stone unturned.
- If you are unsure, don’t understand something or feel they haven’t answered the question properly don’t be afraid to ask the interviewee for clarification. If you are still uncertain, ask again.
- Give the interviewee the opportunity at the end of the interview to talk about anything else related to the subject that you haven’t already discussed to make sure you haven’t missed anything. They may come up with a gem of information that you hadn’t considered before.
- And if they ask for the interview to be off the record for a valid reason or as background, then respect this wish.
- Always take their phone number at the end of the interview if you later need to call them with queries, clarifications or follow up questions that you think of after the event.
- If you can’t get the answer you are looking for at the interview then agree to call the source back once they have been able to find this out.
4) Use at least two independent sources
- When standing up a story, remember there is always two sides.
- Make sure, particularly if you are dealing with a contentious or sensitive subject, that you have at least two sources, preferably three, who are not directly connected in any way to give balance to your story.
- If one source provides an opinion on something, particularly if it is an unsubstantiated allegation or claim about a person, organisation or entity, you are obliged to give the other party concerned the right of reply.
5) Check, check and check again
- When you finally sit down to write the story take a moment to consider if the story you plan to write will be fair and accurate. If not, do you need to do further research to make it balanced?
- While you are writing pause to think if you have captured the essence of what the person told you and that you are getting their point of view across. If there is anything you are unsure of go back to the source to clarify. If still in doubt and it’s not a key part of the story, leave it out or find a way of writing around it.
- Once the story is complete, print it out and read it through at least twice. Check for spelling, grammar and punctuation, as well as every key fact, tightening and brightening up your copy as you go through it the first time. On the second reading, think about the bigger picture, the sense of the piece and if it’s balanced, fair, ethical and legally sound.
- If you are unsure if it would stand up in court, consult a reputable media lawyer.
- Finally, get a qualified journalist or news editor to double check and edit your work as necessary and to feed back if there are any issues.
Get in touch
- To find out how I can help with your writing, editing or research needs give me a call on +44 (0)7949 590213 or email firstname.lastname@example.org