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From facts to data: Tips for making your stories airtight

By Taylor Bembery

According to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, a journalist is required to seek and report the truth. At the Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference in Philadelphia, journalists discussed methods for making stories airtight. The panel was moderated by Shawn McIntosh of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and included panelists, Alleen Brown of The Intercept and David Donald of American University.

Here are some techniques journalists can use to improve their accuracy:

  • Every writer should have a fact-checking process.
  • No matter how meticulous the reporter, an editor should always be questioning a reporter’s sourcing.
  • Double-check your facts after writing. This helps to surface errors before publication.
  • Don’t let deadlines created by the newsroom force you to publish a half-baked story. A killed or delayed story isn’t a failure.
  • Go beyond a request for comment. Allow adversarial sources an opportunity to understand and respond. Try different methods of reaching them and give them enough time to respond.

Facts and data can combine to make a great story. Donald offered 10 tips for navigating data as part of your investigation.

  • Create a data diary or data log as soon as you begin your project.
  • When requesting data, make sure to ask for the accompanying data dictionaries, record layouts and code sheets.
  • Talk to the primary data sources. There is no such thing as perfect data; a human being is always involved. Talk to data entry clerks and administrators to check for accuracy.
  • Talk to secondary data sources. These are people that have worked with the data and found interesting patterns. They may be economist, social scientists, professors, researchers or engineers. Ask them: What did they learn from the data?
  • Perform integrity checks.
  • Spend time with the data. Learning about and researching your data will help ensure you understand the material.
  • Keep asking, “What am I missing?”
  • Find a second set of eyes to look over your results.
  • Check every number or analysis going into the story.
  • Work with your editor or producer, especially if they don’t have experience with data journalism.


Taylor Bembery is a 2015 IRE Conference Knight Scholar and a recent graduate of Jackson State University in Detroit, Michigan. She received her Bachelor of Science in Mass Communications with a concentration in Multimedia Journalism and a minor in English in December of 2014.

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