New tip sheet helps you ‘background like a boss’

Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

Photo: Karina Smigla-Bobinski via Flickr

In late January, Kate Howard, managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, conducted one of the most important webinars for any journalist — green or seasoned — to watch: “Perfecting the 15-minute background check – for all sources.” How important is it? Well, she presents her tips every single year at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference, teaching attendees how to “background like a boss,” and the room is packed every time.

Despite being a journalist for more than a decade, I learned plenty when I attended (perhaps more than I’d like to admit) and expect this will save me from extreme embarrassment one day. So I was thrilled when Howard agreed to present a modified version specifically for health journalists.

While I encourage everyone who missed the session to find a half hour to view it, I knew it would be helpful to have a tip sheet compiling all Howard’s tips and resources. This extensive tip sheet is available in the Medical Studies Core Topic area of AHCJ’s website. Below is the straight list of tips; visit the tip sheet for details.

Close readers will note that one tip appears twice. The importance of accountability, responsibility and transparency cannot be overstated. Credibility is a journalist’s most important currency, and credibility is what’s at stake when a reporter makes a mistake or misses something crucial.

  1. Never assume ANYONE has been vetted unless you’ve done it yourself.
  2. Take responsibility for mistakes that you do make.
  3. Consider what you specifically need to check out with each source.
  4. Make things easy on yourself with a resource list of websites and phone numbers.
  5. Google, Google, Google!
  6. Dive into the cesspool of social media.
  7. Check professional licenses and disciplinary actions, as possible.
  8. Check what the source has said in other stories.
  9. Check court records.
  10. Check businesses and nonprofits.
  11. Check military records for service members.
  12. Go old-school.
  13. Create mini-checklists.
  14. If something turns up, discuss with your editor.
  15. If you mess up, take responsibility, be transparent and follow up.

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