Dee J. Hall

Managing Editor

dhall@wisconsinwatch.org

Who we are, what we do

Wisconsin Watch was launched in 2009 as an independent nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news service that distributes stories for free to the media of Wisconsin and beyond. We collaborate with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television and other nonprofit as well as for-profit media to produce investigative reports on issues of statewide importance. Based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we also train current and future generations of investigative journalists.

Why Wisconsin Watch adopted fact-checking

In 2009, two of the first three stories we produced contained significant factual errors. One was caught before publication; the other was not. Those mistakes threatened to end our organization, which relies on trust by editors and the public.

CPI to the rescue!

We now use a system designed by the Center for Public Integrity, founded by one of our board members, Chuck Lewis. It is a very time-intensive process, taking an average of eight to 12 hours for a typical story but longer for bigger projects. Our labor trafficking package took 36 hours to fact check.

But you don’t have eight to 12 hours!

A typical story is turned around in a single day — sometimes in a single hour! So what can you do in that short amount of time to avoid errors?

Here are some common errors that can slip into stories.

Misspelled, mispronounced names and titles

If you have time to do nothing else, check the names and titles of people, places, companies, institutions and groups. This is an error that readers, listeners and viewers notice immediately.

Just the other day, I heard my alma mater referred to by NPR as the University of Indiana. Listeners (or perhaps sources) alerted the reporter, and it was quickly corrected to Indiana University when the story ran again later.

Major news outlets, including the Washington Post, have referred in breaking online news stories to the “Muller” report. We all know it’s “Mueller,” but reporters, even the best ones, can make mistakes on deadline.

Companies sometimes rebrand (Google, “Tribune Co. and Tronc”). Make sure you have the correct name by checking the company’s website.

Check numbers!

It is very easy to get numbers wrong, especially if you’re relying on memory. For example:

  • When was the “Watergate scandal?”
  • When was Tommy Thompson governor?
  • When was 9/11?
  • How many people live in Middleton?

Did you guess right?

  • The Watergate scandal broke in 1972. It wasn’t until two years later, in 1974, that President Richard Nixon resigned. It would be easy to mistake the two.

2) Tommy Thompson was elected to four, four-year terms beginning in 1987. But that’s not how long he served. Thompson left office in 2001 to become U.S. Health and Human Services secretary. So he served 14 years, not 16. Don’t forget — most statewide officials in Wisconsin are elected in November of even years and take office in the following January.

3) The 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., occurred in 2001. The longer ago these attacks were, the easier it is to remember the attacks as being in 2011, for example.

4) The city of Middleton had 20,472 people in 2018, according to the state Department of Administration. Don’t mistake it for the town of Middleton. That community has just 6,440 people.

Know thyself!

What are the words you always misspell? For me, it is the word occured, I mean occurred! Use spell check!

What are the numbers you always get wrong?

For me, it’s time zones. 2 p.m. in Wisconsin (Central) is NOT 1 p.m. in New York (Eastern) The correct answer is 3 p.m.

What are your common grammatical errors?

One common error involves singular words such as company, everybody and none followed by a plural pronoun.

Example: Ford Motor Co. was founded in 1903. They make automobiles. The sentence should be: It makes automobiles. If that sounds clunky, reword.

Incorrect: Everybody must bring their own lunch.

Correct: Everybody must bring his or her own lunch.

Incorrect: None of those people are suspects.

Correct: None of those people is a suspect.

Other common problems

Problem: Double words or typos.

How to catch it: Read your story aloud back to yourself slowly. Print out and read the story. Or have someone else read it.

Problem: A fact that raises eyebrows — and is wrong. Back in the 1980s, a science writer I worked with said Phoenix’s average summer temperature could rise to 130 degrees. Phoenix is hot — but not that hot! That was actually the predicted high temperature under climate change, not the average.

How to catch it: Listen to your eyebrows. Double-check the fact with the original source. You may have misunderstood it — or maybe you just got a big scoop!

The system we use

Each fact, quote, assertion and characterization is assigned a number. We then identify a paper document that verifies the information and mark that with the same number. Context is often fact-checked or discussed with the reporter for accuracy and fairness. Sometimes, errors found in the fact-checking process require a rewrite or more reporting. This system works great for longer term projects.

Even veteran reporters endure our intensive fact-checking process. Here, former Wisconsin Watch reporter Bill Lueders poses next to four years’ worth of fact-checking files.

Everybody fact-checks!

Learn more about Wisconsin Watch’s fact-checking

Go to WisconsinWatch.org and choose “Be your own watchdog” under “About the Center.” You can also read Cara Lombardo’s great story about our fact-checking system by searching for “Fact-checking” on our site. This presentation and a longer one on Wisconsin Watch’s fact-checking system will be posted on the “Be your own watchdog” page.

Watchdog 101 Fact-checking on the fly - Google Slides