Fact or Fake – Opinion Journalism Here at Home

Dan Wardby Dan Ward

Last July I printed what has become a regular rant about “fact-checking,” the process through which news media offer subjective opinions on whether statements of fact are objectively true.

I warned at the time that “our job as communicators is to prepare for the day in which fact-checking moves beyond politicians and pundits to include a review of the statements from our clients and CEOs.”

That day has arrived.

The Orlando Sentinel is launching a new weekly fact-checking feature, Fact or Fake, “devoted to testing the accuracy of statements made by people closer to home.” In addition to checking claims of elected officials, the Sentinel will rate statements made by “business leaders, civic leaders and pretty much anyone in a position of influence in Florida,” to include statements made in speeches and press releases.

I have no issue with the Sentinel or any other news source verifying whether statements of fact are indeed factual. My concern is that existing fact-checking sites too often rate the level of truth in a factual statement, based on personal opinions about the issues upon which those statements are based. A statement may be factual yet ruled only “half true” based on a reporter’s subjective interpretation of context. That’s not a fact check; it’s a judgment.

What does that mean for those of us who communicate for a living? It means that context may now be just as important as content. It’s not enough to just issue a statement of fact or a position on an issue; we must also explain the context behind those statements and why we stand behind the positions we take. This will be true even in communication channels like Twitter where space is at a premium.

We must also monitor even more closely the comments made by our clients and CEOs and fact check ourselves. Any inaccurate statement should be addressed and corrected before a fact-checking team issues a judgment.

And as always, we should not shy away from fact-checking journalists who cover our companies and industries.

I have great respect for the Sentinel Opinion team under Mike Lafferty, and it is my hope that the paper will break the mold and produce fact checks that actually check facts (though the game show-esque “Fact or Fake” title does not inspire confidence). If not, look for my next rant in a few months!

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