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How to avoid simple mistakes

Fact-checking in a post-truth world

niels-footmanWith Oxford Dictionaries declaring post-truth its word of 2016, and fake news and alternative facts dominating headlines in 2017, it can be hard to know what’s what.

Instant communication and a non-stop news cycle mean that fact-checking is more important than ever. So how should you ensure that you get things right for your clients?

First, use primary sources wherever possible. History students are taught to cite evidence from primary sources (documents from the period being studied) rather than secondary ones (the work of historians).

You might think that primary sources are hard to come by in financial writing, but you’d be wrong. The Federal Reserve, for instance, publishes the minutes of its meetings and the transcripts of its press conferences, as well as speeches made by its officials. The Bank of England does the same.

When you’re using these sources, make sure your quotes are accurate. Lots of financial services companies use rather old-fashioned style guides, in which quoted speech or writing is distinguished by double quotes (“”), while ‘distancing’ or ‘scare’ quotes are single (‘’).

That makes it important to establish whether a word or phrase is being reported verbatim. Did Janet Yellen say that there had been a “considerable” rise in inflation expectations or that they’d moved up “considerably”? Never pass a paraphrase off as a quotation.

Also, watch out for ‘Chinese whispers’. In a non-stop news cycle, inaccurate media reports can be recycled or distorted by other outlets, so that the mistakes are multiplied. When you’re researching any development, read as many different accounts as you can. Understand the issue and form your own view.

Look out, too, for misleading headlines. Writing headlines is traditionally the job of sub-editors rather than reporters. But cost-cutting in newsrooms means that sub-editing has been squeezed. Sub-editors sometimes don’t bother to read stories properly. Make sure you do.


ambiguous headline
Ambiguous headline: It appears fewer nurses are being attacked; in fact, the attack was on the big drop in the number of nurses


Also, remember that things become clearer over time. Economic growth figures provide an obvious example, as they’re usually revised through successive estimates.

When you mention GDP figures, make sure to use the latest ones – unless, of course, you’re discussing the market reaction to a specific estimate. Even then, it’s always worth noting what subsequent estimates were.

Try to disentangle facts from opinion. Was the European Central Bank’s recent announcement on asset purchases ‘tapering’? The bank was at pains to stress it was not. Many commentators disagreed.

The best thing to do here is to set out the facts: the amount of monthly purchases was reduced, but the programme of purchases was extended by six months.

Always think carefully as you finalise your copy. Remember how many tweets are deleted after the author realises that they’ve got something wrong, written something rash or simply said something stupid.

Finally, double-check the details. Mrs Clinton’s first name has two Ls. It’s Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena (even though the bank’s home town is sometimes spelt Sienna in English). And Rolls-Royce has a hyphen. In a post-truth world, attention to detail gives your readers vital reassurance.

Niels Footman is Head of Marketing at Copylab, an international communications agency based in Scotland.

Want to read more about copywriting, jargonbusting and marketing communication? Check out Copylab’s blog

This article appears under the terms of the DB Direct service

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