How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Fact Checking: Your Boring New Advantage

Superstar authors don’t do it. Neither do publishers. And, increasingly, neither do media (except for politicians).

But you do, as researchers and research communicators. You just don’t talk about it.

It’s called fact checking. And it’s your new competitive advantage.

How could that be? Fact checking might be the most unglamorous activity ever, right down there with colonoscopies and mining for rare earth metals.

And that’s the point. Fact checking is dull and expensive — so no one does it anymore. We live in an age of pervasive factchecklessness. There’s even an increasing lack of shame about one’s “research-based” conclusions floating free from actual research.

The latest example? Author Naomi Wolf’s new book “Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalization of Love,” which has a huge gaffe at its center: that dozens of gay men were executed under sodomy law in 19th century England. They weren’t, it turns out.

Wolf’s counter? “This is not a social investigation,” she said of her book to The Times of London. “This is not a demographic investigation. It’s a cultural analysis of a mood — just like all my books.”

But wait — which mood? Ours? Or the Victorians? How could she tell? Never mind.

Wolf isn’t alone. UCLA geographer and professional big thinker Jared Diamond’s new book, “Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis,” is, according to Anand Giridharadas’ New York Times review, basically a confection of factual errors, unsupported generalizations, quotes of anonymous friends, a lack of easily irretrievable data, blindness toward racism and sexism as serious social issues — all supporting a bullet-pointed master framework of how the world works into which everything fits far too neatly.

And as reward, Diamond gets to tell David Wallace-Wells there’s a 49 percent chance the world as we know it will end by 2050. (How fitting is that pairing?)

As Giridharadas wrote, we now have a fact-checking crisis in non-fiction publishing:

The time has come for those of us who work in book-length nonfiction to insist that professional fact-checking become as inalienable from publishing as publicity, marketing and jacket design — and at the publisher’s expense rather than as a cost passed on to the author, who, understandably, will often choose to spend her money on health care. In the age of tweets, it cannot be the fate of the book to become ever more tweetlike — maybe factual, maybe whatever. The book must stand apart, must stand above.

Giridharadas blames the establishment for continuing to prop up old white male gasbags like Diamond. He has a point — to a point. There’s clearly sexism at play when you see Wolf’s public evisceration for her mistake, while Diamond continues to get invited to ideas festivals.

But lefty newspapers like the Guardian now put theses before facts as well. Case in point: this Guardian article about the dangers of nanoparticles in food and consumer products. Or rather, what the Guardian quotes some scientists as saying the dangers might be, because it turns out there’s not much science but a great deal of worrying. But a lot of those quotes feel squeezed in ways to buttress the thesis. And, at the end of the article, the Guardian tells me it’s raising $150,000 for a project called “Toxic America: Is modern life poisoning us?” —​ and wouldn’t I like to contribute?

But what if modern life isn’t toxic? Will the Guardian report on that? Is it really going to ask the question honestly? No, based on this article.

Your stock in trade is research, so you check the facts in all your communications (or you should).

But saying you “do research” or that your work is “research-based” or “peer-reviewed” doesn’t denote to many audiences any more that you have your facts straight. You need to say it out loud.

This is not a problem. This is an opportunity.

First: Develop an explicit process for fact-checking all your reports, articles, talks, blog posts, videos and other thought leadership. Dedicate a staff resource to execute your process or — better yet — hire an independent fact checker or pool resources with other organizations to hire one.

Second: Publish that process on your website and badge all your content that’s been fact-checked.

Third: Provide an email below the badge for anyone to send in errors that they find. Yes, you might get some crazies. But it’s a signal that you’re serious about providing fact-based information and analysis.

Fourth: Market the hell out of this differentiation. “We’re the only X that fact checks all our content — period.”

Yes, fact checking slows your responsiveness down a little. Yes, it might cause problems with your backlog of content — you’ll figure that out. (Maybe it’s time to audit it?)

But suddenly, when you fact check and market that fact, everybody else’s content looks a little shaky.

​Takeaway: The farther the world strays from facts, the closer you’re going to want to be to fact checking.