How to bulletproof your story when fact is a 4-letter word

Whether a story is for online publication within an hour or magazine publication within weeks, it is always crucial to follow a set of principles that define good journalism. Anything less than meticulous journalism can have catastrophic consequences.

“The moment they can undermine practically anything that you say in a particular piece means that that piece suddenly becomes worthless,” says Yvonne Rolzhausen, research chief at The Atlantic. “There are lawyers out there who literally just trawl all day long news reports to see if someone has basically made an accusation against their clients that they can then go after and sue.”

Sourcing your story

  • Find the source closest to the story, whether that’s a local reporter over a national one, or the case detective rather than the police chief.
  • Websites are often wrong. Always verify the credibility of online sources and where they are getting their information.
  • If your story identifies a person or entity, be sure to seek comment from them. If necessary, you can point to a statement or comment given to someone else, as long as it tells their side of the story. 
  • “Every lawyer out there says an anonymous source is a non-existent source because they’re not going to show up in the courtroom when we get hauled in for libel,” says Rolzhausen.
  • Go back to each of your sources and confirm the quotes that you will publish, even if you think they might change their mind and blow up your story. “Any good editor wants it to blow up prior to publication,” Rolzhausen says. “I can then figure out, ‘Have we made a mistake … is this so legally problematic that we should be getting a lawyer involved?’” 

Exercise care and caution

  • Every piece of your story must be verified, even if it only seems like a minor detail.
  • Only state facts and never assume. If your story is about an arsonist who hasn’t been charged in court, they are an alleged arsonist, even if there was an eyewitness or confession. If you don’t know what Rolzhausen describes as a “full enough understanding” of the facts, keep interviewing people who do.
  • Be aware of biases in yourself and others. “We all have biases. We all reinforce our own biases all the time,” Rolzhausen says. For a list of different types of unconscious biases, click here.

Journalistic principles

  • The same fact-checking fundamentals and journalistic principles apply regardless of the length of the story.
  • Showing both sides of the story is not necessary when one side of the story doesn’t represent fact. For a climate change article, your story doesn’t need to give credence to deniers, since thousands of scientific studies back up climate change. “You have to ask yourself if you’re being unfair to the truth,” says Rolzhausen. However, if your article calls out an individual, it is best practice to seek comment from them.
  • Following journalistic principles can help protect you from libel-related lawsuits.

Tips are drawn from “How to Bulletproof Your Story When Fact is a 4-Letter Word,” a program originally produced on Nov 1, 2019. Missed the program? Watch now.

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