And Tips for Trusting
Many content developers find themselves responsible–formally or informally–for tasks outside the realm of writing or editing:
- Looking up backgrounds and histories
- Identifying opposing theories or views
Research skills tend to fall off the radar when looking for writers who can test functionality or evaluate usability. But research is essential to other business functions and content creation relies on research to ensure accuracy, compliance with regulations or policy, and basic credibility with audiences. The responsibility to ensure accuracy can feel daunting and even discouraging, but the noble tradition of sticking to “just the facts” is easier when you know where to start looking based on the type of circumstance. The following scenarios and suggestions will help bring this lofty task down to earth.
Is That Right? Fact Checking for Beginners
Imagine yourself in this scenario: You receive a request from the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) to copyedit the company’s website. Along the way you come across a sweeping statement, “Customer Service Representatives in every time zone!” While Marketing would very much like for this to be true, you suspect that the Legal department may have another opinion. So you need to verify the statement.
To determine whether the company has CSRs in every time zone, you need to identify what are all the time zones and where the CSRs are located. Google can easily identify all the time zones and what cities, states, and countries are in each zone.
Refer to the company’s website or intranet to identify customer service centers. Match that list to the list of time zones. If you’ve not accounted for every time zone, examine internal company resources for office locations.
If that leaves you with outstanding zones, check with Human Resources or Personnel. While they cannot give you the locations of any work-from-home personnel or those who work in otherwise atypical locations, you can give them your list of time zones with examples of countries, states, and major cities in those zones then ask whether anyone who works for the company is in or near these locations. If they ask why you need this, let them know you’re fact-checking public-facing information. Typically, they are glad to help with such research.
In the end, if you cannot identify personnel “in every time zone,” present your concern to Marketing and, if necessary, Legal. Your bit of research could save the company face and potentially lawsuits.
This scenario illustrates several types of resources for fact checking:
- Search engines
- Company website
- Company intranet
- The author
These resources apply for many circumstances familiar to technical writers. Others arise frequently that move beyond traditional tech comm such as being asked to write a blog post for a product website or an article for the company newsletter.
Where Do I Begin? Profiling and Backgrounders
In another real-world scenario, Human Resources asks you to write up something about employees who participate in Formal Friday (sometimes called Fashion Friday). Other than visiting every department on a Friday and seeing who’s dressed up, how can you obtain such information?
A good place to start is intranet locations like SharePoint, wikis, and other social spaces. Search for keywords related to dressing up, fashion, suits, style, fancy, and similar terms. Contact those people and ask them if they participate in FF and wouldn’t mind a quick interview.
Reach out to mid-level management and ask them who they’ve noticed is a snappy dresser and if they make a special effort on Fridays. Make sure to come with some info about FF; many managers are unaware of the tradition and might find the information enlightening. It doesn’t hurt to be on a manager’s good list. And with that thought in mind, they might notice someone they hadn’t realized participates in FF.
Chat around with your coworkers and ask them about their previous employers. Perhaps they participated in FF at a previous company, but choose not to now. They may know others with experience in FF.
HR/Personnel may help in this as well. Ask whether they know of anyone who has been commended for their work attire–particularly on Fridays. You can request HR/Personnel reach out to those individuals to request an interview. This protects the individuals while offering them a chance to kvell.
A good idea coming from the realm of networking tips is to keep notes on your coworkers for details like birthdays, names of spouses, children and pets, interests and hobbies, unique backgrounds, and anything that person might provide expertise in. For example, a scrummaster who used to run a startup in Silicon Valley might still have a pulse on trends such as FF. The only way to find out is to set up an interview with that person.
In this scenario we’ve talked about several locations and individuals to use as research sources for feature-based content such as newsletters and blogs:
- Personal observation
- Social intranet
- Note tools
Revisit some of your basic college-level comp and rhetoric skills. Like books and websites, make sure to cite who you talked to and when you spoke with them. Quote them as accurately as possible, in a positive manner, and using the same context as spoken.
Feature stories on professional/industry sites like TechWhirl frequently cite sources and sometimes go further when when presenting information on new or controversial topics.
May I Quote You on That? Multiple Sources and Points of View
Another common scenario involves conflicting details. Imagine that you hear about a new study that affects your industry, so you contact one of the scientists on the team. She tells you that the results are, “cautiously optimistic” and “require further examination.” After collecting numbers and preparing graphs, you feel excited about the implications. Then you read a press release that seems to contradict the scientist by asserting that the outcome was, “statistically insignificant compared to other studies.”
How do you reconcile the opposing statements? In fact, even if you have information on only one viewpoint, you should remain skeptical of the assessments. Subjective statements require stepping back, removing bias, and looking for other data points and trends because the level of complexity in these circumstances is enormous.
Review the original study to see if the numbers could be interpreted differently. Look at the stated goals and scope to see if they conflict with reported results. Compare them with the stated objectives and mission of the sponsoring organization. Differing agendas can create widely different conclusions.The scientists with their specific goal may feel they are heading in the right direction after completion of the study. However, if the larger organization was hoping for something more dramatic, the official spokesperson may feel the results were underwhelming. Scientists, hoping for additional funding, would likely think that more research is the best approach. Meanwhile, those responsible for paying the bills may consider validity in light of “other studies” to determine the value of their investment.
To clarify these positions, ask the scientist about the press release. Talk to her teammates and supervisor and find out if they feel the same way she does. Also use the contact information on the press release to confirm the organization’s point of view on the initial purpose or goal of the scientists.
When you are unsure how to reconcile conflicting resources, your goal should be to present differing perspectives without bias. Distance yourself from the topic so you can use both viewpoints to enhance your content.
Present each perspective with equal courtesy and neutrality. If a source is not credible enough to deserve equal treatment, you should leave it out or find additional reliable sources to represent that viewpoint. This does not mean you should leave out opposing quotes, but that they should come from similar sources.
Consider the degree of distance from the original source when evaluating quality. Avoid he-said-she-said and get quotes from the speaker or someone present at that time.
If you do not have access to the study numbers, you may need to extrapolate from available information. Propose alternative viewpoints and suggest limitations on the effect the study may have. Providing this alternate comparison can help you earn your readers’ respect.
This scenario describes research skills to present contradictory information from multiple sources:
- Talk to the original sources.
- Ask sources about each other’s statements.
- Include and give equal time to all viewpoints.
- Consider alternate interpretations and motivations.
- Propose alternate possibilities.
Traditional information collection and delivery require skill at balancing viewpoints with a human touch. But the digital era relies on information more removed from direct contact.
What’s the Internet For? Knowing Where to Look
In the office and on your own time, you rely on the Internet for answers to pretty much everything. But you want the best answers, if not the right one. So, while there’s nothing wrong with using Google as a research tool, make sure you’re using the tool effectively. Google itself has published a Help article on how to use search. Many other companies offer YouTube videos, Hangouts, webinars, and training (some for fees) that can improve your search skills. Take the time to attend a couple if you have a chance.
Google’s search is certainly the most popular Google research tool, but you can also use Google Scholar to search articles, patents, and case law. It might save you a trip to the public library.
Similarly, Google Books may have a quote from a book that you need to verify. Obviously not every book is included and not even every page (or sentence) of every book. But this tool can also save you a trip to the library–or shorten your visit by narrowing down a source ahead of time.
Finding information on the Internet is easy; finding reliable resources for that information, much less so. And not having reliable resources can result in very negative consequences for you and your employer. How can you verify that a website has stated something factual, accurate, and complete?
The first step is taking everything on the Web with a chunk of salt. A moderate amount of cynical objectivity will keep you alert to possible urban myths, old wives-tales, and repeated misinformation. Many sites contain fake news, tongue-in-cheek comedy, and humorous articles–some perpetually and some seasonally. If the date shown is April 1, you could be reading an April Fool’s joke. Other holidays like Halloween and Christmas may inspire creative articles intended to amuse rather than inform readers.
When your “wait a minute…” alarm goes off, listen to it. Re-read what you’ve read. Is the information cited? If so, follow the links to the origin and analyze the reliability of the original source. If not cited, google the exact phrase. You can work your way through permutations of the phrase to see whether the information was misquoted or misunderstood. Look to websites that specialize in debunking and verification of myths and other stated “facts.”.
If you cannot find another source for a claim, attempt to contact the author, website owner, or webmaster. Reliable websites tend to have all three of these kinds of information in easy-to-find locations such as links at the top or bottom, a Contact Us or About Us page, or some other type of biographical or organizational information page.
Other means of finding contact information are directory sites and domain tools. More information about organizations may appear on social review sites. Social networking can connect you with current or former employees. Ask them if they mind answering questions or can provide additional inroads. Social media may even connect you directly to original sources if they well-known or have unique names.
This section recommended using sites like these for research, verification, and validation:
The Internet cannot replace libraries, but, like libraries, you can only find what you need if you know where to look.
Why Research? Facts Matter
In the Information Age, content developers connect people to facts. Many tools and resources are available for researching facts and building context. The research may be old-school, letting your fingers do the walking, or high-tech, digital spelunking. But there’s more to creating content than collecting and presenting information: you want people to trust your content. Applying good research skills helps you build that trust by filtering out faulty facts, and introducing facts they can’t find on their own. You and your company benefit from that kind of credibility.