Guest post: Advanced fact checking for advanced editors

Stephanie Willen Brown is the director of the Park Library at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. In this post, she offers some tips for editors fact-checking stories about North Carolina communities.

I had the great pleasure of demonstrating some advanced fact-checking tools for Andy’s JOMC 457 students/editors. As our students have hundreds of terrific resources available to them, the first thing I did was create a web page of UNC and North Carolina resources relevant to their needs.

The biggest fact-checking tool is a good, local librarian who can help editors and reporters find reliable data sources for local topics. In the case of JOMC 457, that local librarian is me, so I selected some North Carolina government resources helpful relevant to coverage of Durham and Carrboro.

First up, the North Carolina Secretary of State’s Corporation Search. From here, you can get annual reports from North Carolina companies, which will help you find when they were incorporated and who their directors are. You could also go fishing for a story by searching the companies created or dissolved in the past month, by county.

Another handy local tool is the Durham (NC) Crime Mapper; you can get data for such crimes as arson, assault, burglary, homicide, larceny, motor vehicle theft, robbery and rape. Search by address, police district, or citywide. We wondered in class about the police district breakdowns, and here is a PDF map of the districts.

Many states and counties have similar tools — both for finding corporation information within a state and for finding crime data by town and neighborhood. Check with your local librarian to see if what’s available in your area.

I also showed the student editors some national tools that provide census data down to the local level. American Factfinder is my favorite of these; it will give you 2010 census data at the state, county, town, and even neighborhood level. One interesting piece of comparative data is the number of people using public transportation to get to work: In Carrboro, in 2010, 1,750 indicated they did so, or 16.3% of the population; in Durham, in 2010, 3,892 did so, or 3.1% of the population.

Finally, I showed some sources for confirming facts. We UNC folks have online access to a directory called the Encyclopedia of Associations, which will help editors and reporters find experts in a variety of areas, such as SEEDS, which helps “neighborhoods and communities create sustainable green spaces for gardening, gathering and education.”

The book “Famous First Facts” was the big hit with the class — it would be a great resource to settle bar bets, as one student suggested. It offers answers to questions you didn’t know you had, such first “chemotherapy to successfully achieve remission of cancer;” the first Spider-Man comic-book; and the first “chess grandmaster who was African-American” (answers here, or in your library). This book is in over 2,000 libraries across the United States, and it was one of the first books I purchased for my newspaper library back in 1996 (I served as library director for a newspaper in Springfield, Mass., then the Springfield Union-News, online now as MassLive).

The big takeaway for these editors is: Librarians are a great resource for journalists. I hope students will consult the library resource page I created for them, and I look forward to working with them in person as they edit the Carrboro Commons and the Durham Voice this semester.

Read Stephanie Willen Brown’s blog and follow her on Twitter.