This article originally appeared on the RBC Direct Investing content hub, Inspired Investor on July 14,2020.
Cynthia Brouse inspired me to become a professional fact-checker myself, but more importantly, she taught me to question everything — on and off the job. I highly recommend it.
If you were to take nothing at face value in my introductory sentence above, for example, you might learn a few things:
- While I did attend university in Toronto, I did not go to the University of Toronto. I studied at York, so while I did, in fact, work at my school paper, it was Excalibur, not the Varsity, which is UofT’s student paper.
- I graduated in 2011, and sadly Brouse passed away in 2010, so for both of those reasons, this story can’t have taken place eight years ago in 2012.
- Brouse has, indeed, won multiple prestigious awards, but not for her book, which is titled “After the Fact,” not “Before the Fact.”
- Last, but most certainly not least, it wasn’t Brouse who gave a talk at my school paper, but Patricia Treble, another esteemed Canadian researcher (which I only discovered upon fact-checking this article — proof of the unreliability of human memory).
The thing with misinformation is that it looks a lot like the real thing. The more authentic “imitation facts” seem, the more likely we are to eat them up unquestioningly. And how many facts there are! In the on-demand information age, we are inundated with would-be facts all day, every day. With so much going on in the news today, there is no time like the present to get your facts straight. How? I thought you’d never ask!
1. Go Right to the Source
Whenever possible, seek out the original source. That may mean finding the press release on a company’s website (rather than being satisfied with an article about its recent eyebrow-raising announcement), seeking out the study behind the breaking news story (surprise, eating chocolate doesn’t quite do what they said) or reading a prominent figure’s tweet on her own Twitter feed (rather than mindlessly registering a meme about it).
2. When Needed, Go for Second Best
When you can’t go right to the source, get as close to the topic in question as you can. For instance, don’t get your information about Eyebrow, Sask. (yes, it’s a real place – I checked) in a national newspaper; seek out an article from a local paper, or better yet check the Village of Eyebrow website’s bulletin board (yes, it’s real; yes, I checked). If you can’t get close enough to the subject matter, consult multiple reputable sources to compare notes (the operative word here is “reputable”).
3. Frame with Context
Even when you’re satisfied that something is factually sound, it’s important to think critically about what it means. Be it someone’s words or a statistic, just about anything can be misconstrued if taken out of context. If you’re reading that a certain stock’s price has fallen, for example, do some further reading to understand the significance of that fact. Perhaps the stock is cyclical in nature, or maybe it’s tied to an external event. Same goes for a red-hot investment opportunity — what’s the story behind the soaring valuation?
Looking for a short cut? Of course you are, since most of us don’t have hours to dedicate to confirming a single fact. (Believe me, even if you are getting paid, it’s not always fun.)
Good news: You can outsource your fact-checking. All content is not created equal. Be intentional about the channels you select for informing yourself. For instance, I’m partial to any podcast that ends with statements like “this episode was fact-checked by so and so.” You can also consult an independent fact-checking resource, such as Snopes.com.
Bad news: You never get a pass on maintaining a critical eye. We are only human, so every writer has some bias — even if it is perfectly aligned with your own. This is why market commentators disclose if they own shares of a certain stock they’ve discussed, for example.
This article is intended as general information only and is not to be relied upon as constituting legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. Information presented is believed to be factual and up-to-date but we do not guarantee its accuracy and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the authors as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or any of its affiliates.