Best Practices for Research-Based Podcasts

Credit: Getty Images / jdwfoto
Credit: Getty Images / jdwfoto

Investigative reporting expert Sarah Hutchins shares some advice for getting the facts straight.

Some of the most compelling podcasts in recent years have been driven by original reporting on true stories. But the decision to produce that kind of podcast shouldn't be made casually. Sourcing information for fact-based podcasts can be much more time-consuming than launching a podcast that delivers off-the-cuff roundtables or one-source conversations.

For people with a journalism background, the kind of rigorous research required might seem familiar. However, for those who are newer to the reporting field, producing an objectively accurate, facts-based podcast could have a steep learning curve.

Sarah Hutchins, editorial director at the nonprofit journalism organization Investigative Reporters & Editors, also edits the IRE Radio Podcast, which goes in-depth and behind-the-scenes with editors, writers, and producers of major investigative feature stories. She shared tips around how to get started with fact-based podcasting, including best practices for gathering information, reporting, and fact-checking.

Spotify for Podcasters: What are some of the best practices if you're looking to start a podcast that's mostly fact-based?

Sarah Hutchins: You want to take a look at what's already being done on the topic or the issue or the story that you are interested in. That includes which podcasts have talked about it, but also looking at the larger media landscape. Who are the publications, the journalists, the academics that have already touched on this?

If you're going to be revisiting something in the past, there's probably a lot that has been done on it. If it's something more recent, there might be people in the thick of it already covering it and trying to keep up with what's going on in current events.

If it is something that has been under-covered in the past—maybe there wasn't a lot of attention given to it back in the day or if it's a cold case and it wasn't solved—you want to go back and do your due diligence. You want to look at everything that's been done, who are the experts on these issues, so that when you do go down that path and you decide this is something you want to do, you can be aware of the people that you want to talk to, the body of work you want to look at.

If you're putting together a fact-based, well-reported podcast, it's not something that happens overnight. What does that reporting process look like?

I work with a lot of journalists who are trying to take their work and turn it into a podcast. These are people who have been covering these issues for months or even years. So if you think about what a journalist does to turn their reporting into a podcast, even that legwork can be incredibly lengthy.

If you're someone who's coming to this and you don't have that personal connection, or you haven't been following these issues at a deeper level, you're going to want to spend quite a bit of time reading everything that you can read, and contacting some journalists in advance and saying, "Hey, I'm thinking about doing this. Could I just pick your brain for a little bit? It doesn't have to be anything I would publish; I just want to get familiar with this issue." Talk to the experts; talk to the researchers.

If you're going to be doing something where you're trying to really follow this in-depth, and you want to take the more journalistic approach to it, you might want to reach out to some of the people who have firsthand knowledge of this.

Thinking back to some of those cold case-style podcasts—you know, the first season of Serial. What kind of access would you have with anybody you can talk to about this? That's what we do in journalism—we call it pre-reporting, where you go out and you're trying to figure out, what do I even have access to? Could I get people to talk to me? Could I get documents on these issues? We do a lot of document reporting in journalism. Could I get the court transcripts? Could I get any kind of reports that have been made?

If you come across an article someone may have written on a case that you're potentially looking at, what are the best practices around that? Should you reach out to the journalist and say, "Hey, can I use some of your reporting?"

Part of it comes down to how you're going to use it. If you plan to share what somebody has already reported, and you're going to give them their credit, and you're going to say, "According to an article in the New York Times by Joe Smith on this day," and then quote directly from it, I think that is doing fair use.

What you don't want to do is just recap what somebody else has found, and not attribute that to another publication. You don't want to start using everything that you've read, and not be very clear about where you got that information from.

I think contacting the journalist is great. Reporters are very busy. Not every journalist can go and talk to a podcaster. But giving them the courtesy of saying, "Hey, I'm going to be using your story—would love to talk to you about it either on the podcast or just outside to get information," I think that's a good thing to do to cover your bases.

If you plan on commenting on that person's reporting, if you're going to talk about it in some kind of opinionated way, it's really good to let them know that, and give them an opportunity to talk to you about how they came to their reporting, how they published what they did.

What should the fact-checking process look like after you've gathered your information and reporting? For someone who might not be necessarily as well-versed in that, what should they be doing and looking out for?

You want to look out for all your blind spots. Especially in podcasts, it can be a little bit difficult. With a normal piece that you'd be reading in a newspaper and magazine, we can sit down and check every word. With a podcast where you're trying to be more conversational and you're trying to make a connection and make it feel like you're just having a conversation with someone, it can be a little bit more challenging to check every single word that's being said.

So the most important thing to think about if you're talking about an issue is, have you gotten all of the different sides of the story? Are you just going down one path, and you haven't given the other people in the podcast the opportunity to share their perspective, to push back against something? The fairness aspect is very important in podcasts.

Beyond that, you know, what we do in journalism is we take our script and we go through it—we check everybody's name, we check everybody's title. There's some pretty good sites out there if you are taking a more newsworthy approach to how to fact-check your work, that can give you some basic best practices on that stuff.

If you're doing a more unscripted podcast—you're sitting down, you're talking about something with somebody—you might want to go through the process of having it transcribed and then applying the fact-checking process to that. Do it the other way around: Run it through a transcription tool, print it out, and then check what you just said.

—Annie Zaleski

For fact-checking resources Hutchins recommends PolitiFact, Open News guide to Verifying Facts, and this Twitter thread by reporter Jayme Fraser.