Getting the facts right on air: The TV producers fast guide to fact checking

November 30, 2015 by Megan Burnside

An industry evolving
The UK television industry spends more than £5 billion annually on programming of which more than half is spent on original programming.  Whilst this used to be predominately created by the TV channels in house, the past 15 years has seen a significant trend towards independent production companies being commissioned for both TV and radio programmes.  The industry now supports more than 7000 businesses, employing almost 50,000 people.

Social media
As social media has become one of the primary means to communicate, so called "second screen" behaviours have developed.  Encouraged by the programmes themselves, people have been turning to social media to share views and interact on the small screen whilst watching TV on a bigger screen.  Indeed the top 10 most tweeted about programmes in the UK to May 2014 amassed a staggering 25 million interactions on Twitter.

This brings into sharp focus production companies' responsibility to ensure accuracy and fairness in the programmes they create.  Fact checking has always been critically important before something airs on TV but in a world where social media enables a mistake to be shared and amplified globally in seconds, it becomes even more so.

Swimming against the tide
For independent production companies this should never be overlooked.  Simply to do business with the BBC, independents need to become an approved supplier and each is re-checked every three years for compliance.  Furthermore every programme created for the BBC requires the completion of a comprehensive compliance declaration, the first point of which relates to potential legal risks.  Independents that are unable to complete this satisfactorily are unlikely to be commissioned or see their work on air.

This is not the only risk.  OFCOM regularly fines and reprimands companies over factual issues, dealing with around 300 breaches of its guidelines per year.  In an industry with a large number of suppliers to a small number of commissioners, it is vital to gain and maintain a reputation for accuracy.

Fact checking checklist
How do independent production companies manage the process of ensuring that on air content is factually accurate?  Here is our five point guide:

  1. Ensure that everyone within the organisation knows the importance of fact checking
    No TV production company goes out of its way to get something wrong – errors are the cause of most issues.  It is therefore critical that everyone involved in a production is aware of risks.
  2. Manage risk effectively.  
    Clearly accusations against people or organisations carry the largest risk of factual errors.  However it is important not to assume facts are facts.  Critical to this is reliable sources of information.
  3. Do not rely on public search engines or user generated sites
    Journalists used to insist on having two independent sources for any information to be treated as legitimate.  In the digital age it is much harder to ensure two sources are independent because of how information is referenced and linked on the web.  Reliable sources of public information do not include Wikipedia!
  4. Review content independently
    A powerful tool to deploy is using a third party to review fact checking.  This ensures that those closest to the story are not both judge and jury
  5. Ensure an audit trail of fact checking
    If something does go wrong, being able to demonstrate how records were kept and efforts to fact check were made can be a powerful mitigating tool.

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