I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I would develop short lessons about appropriate responses to information in the context of both general research skills instruction and specific kinds of library information literacy instruction. I’ve been collecting books and links and other resources as I think about it, and the most recent book I’ve read on the subject so far is Brooke Borel’s The Chicago Guide to Fact-Checking (University of Chicago Press, 2016). I freely admit (as a loud and proud CMS16 fangirl) that I came for the “Chicago,” but I definitely stayed for the content.
The Chicago Guide to Fact-Checking offers seven chapters, the content of the first six of which can be roughly broken down into two categories: an overview of the relevant concepts and procedures and more specific information addressing actual practice. The final chapter is a practice task, followed by appendices that provide an answer to the practice task and a set of useful resources. It’s short (174 pages, including the index and references), but that’s mostly an indication of the efficiency and clarity of Borel’s presentation rather than a sign of any limitations in its content.
The book is peppered throughout with little “Think Like a Fact-Checker” exercises that invite the reader to practice the skills described in the text. These short exercises are a nice touch — they give the reader the opportunity to take on the job of fact-checking in reasonable developmental steps. If I were teaching an introductory journalism course or training students to work on a university publication, Borel’s invitation to the reader to “think like a fact-checker” would be central to my agenda for the course.
This is a book very well suited, in fact, for introductory journalism students. Borel’s account of the work of fact-checkers is presented through specific examples of how that work is done for publication purposes, and includes quite a lot of basic procedural information for someone in or seeking to enter the journalism game. This isn’t a theoretical exploration of journalistic norms — it’s a how-to guide based on the expertise of someone in the business, and reflects both practical and professional norms for the job.
Obviously I am not a journalism instructor — I’m a philosopher who wants to be a librarian. For my purposes (teaching undergraduates in either introductory philosophy classes or library instruction sessions), much of the inside-baseball material about journalistic practice isn’t especially useful, although I think consumers of news media would definitely benefit from becoming more familiar with how journalists and editors do their jobs. The method encoded in Borel’s account of practice is, however, potentially quite useful indeed regardless of audience. Her careful descriptions of how to check different kinds of facts and how to handle different kinds of sourcing are invaluable for anyone trying to develop a basic awareness of how and where to find relevant and reliable information. I especially appreciate her treatment of the distinction between primary and secondary sources and the accompanying information about how to evaluate the credibility of items in both categories. I might not find occasion to assign the entire book, but I would certainly find reason to cite it and to point students toward reading certain pieces of it.
So, short take: Borel does the signal service of providing a brief, clear, useful guide on the subject from a journalist’s point of view, and along the way opens a window into both good research practice and the tricky business of journalism itself. Even if you’re not a journalist, it’s a book worth having around.