[This post is part of the How To Ruin Your Reputation on the Internet series, written by CEDAM Communications Intern Olivia Courant.]

This series highlights mistakes nonprofits make online that hurt their reputation or make their online communications strategies ineffective. Today’s topic: fact checking.

—A Very Bad Statistic—

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Imagine opening the newspaper tomorrow morning and reading this statistic: “Every year since 1980, the number of unemployed people in the state of Michigan has doubled.”

Wow. This statistic would be a great way to show that unemployment is a big problem in Michigan. So without further thought, you quote the newspaper article in a newsletter about unemployment. Soon, other Michigan nonprofits pick up on this statistic and they too use it to point to the problem of unemployment. Eventually it is common knowledge that unemployment is doubling each year in Michigan.

What is wrong with this? Let’s assume that there is one unemployed person in Michigan in 1980. In 1981, there are two. By 1990 there are 1,024 unemployed people. Not so bad, right? When we reach 2000, a little more than one million people in Michigan are unemployed, or 1 of every 10 people living in Michigan that year.

According to our faulty statistic, we can expect one billion people to be unemployed in Michigan next year, 2010. In other words, the entire U.S. population three times over would roughly equal the number of unemployed in Michigan.

This is an example of a bad statistic. As nonprofits, part of our job is to keep our numbers straight so that others have an accurate picture of how big the problem is, who is being affected, what is needed, etc, so that the problem can be addressed correctly. Fact checking does not only apply to numbers; it also applies to information. While some of us have no problem evaluating the credibility of information, we may balk at the idea of checking numbers. Fortunately, there are two simple, basic principles to fact check most anything.

1. Common Sense
Does the number or fact make sense based on what you already know? If not, is the source credible? (see #2)

2. Source Credibility
Where did the number or fact come from? Something you overheard? A flaky looking website or a chain letter? A partisan think tank? An established nonprofit? The U.S. Census Bureau? Obviously there are some sources we can trust more than others.

Finally, always remember to mention the specifics of any statistic or fact you use, such as the time, place, and people it applies to. No one wants to be caught accidentally applying data from the 70’s to the current situation.

Interested in learning more about how to fact check?

  • The University of British Colombia has guidelines on evaluating internet resources (here) and print resources (here).
  • See how PolitiFact.com does their fact checking in this YouTube video.
  • If you enjoy reading and want to learn more about how statistics can be misleading, I highly recommend Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics by Joel Best. It is an easy, entertaining, and enlightening read and you do not need to have advanced knowledge of math to understand it. Google Books will give you a limited preview of the book here, and also of the “sequel.”

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