Do we have to live in a world of fictions, falsehoods and figments?

Bobbie Johnson
Dec 10, 2013 · 4 min read

Maybe, like me, you spent a little bit of your Thanksgiving reading about a bizarre and aggressive feud between two people on an airplane. Or maybe you were aghast when you read a powerful essay on being poor. Or maybe you felt a bit weird reading that kid’s Amazon-friendly letter to Santa.

If so, the chances are that you later discovered that actually you weren’t doing any of those things: you were actually reading a kind of online fiction.

There was no woman in seat 7A. There was no kid, just a comedian. And that $60,000 raised to help lift that writer out of the poverty she described? It’s complicated.

Were these stories hoaxes? Or are they (as the authors all seem to argue) just fictions that got out of control? You can decide where you draw the line, but here are two facts I’ll give you for free: none of these stories were really true, and none of the authors admitted it until they were caught.

For me, what’s worse was the fact that so many other websites pointed to the stories, or reported on them, without bothering to check the basic question of whether they were real. The sites I linked to above (Gawker, The Daily Mail, and Mashable) even got to have their cake and eat it too: they published the original unverified reports and then published stories calling them into question.

The New York Times wrote about this spate of viral fiction, and elicited this entirely accurate and utterly debilitating comment from one journalism insider:

“The faster metabolism puts people who fact-check at a disadvantage,” said Ryan Grim, the Washington bureau chief for The Huffington Post, which reposted the fictional airplane tweets, the letter to Santa and the poverty essay.

Grim doesn’t seem to like this state of affairs. But, like most people working in online news, he probably feels like it’s an impossible force to escape.

That kind of thinking makes me feel a little unwell. Yes, he’s right: the fact that speed is one of the most valuable currencies on the web is part of its beauty and its terror. But that doesn’t mean you have to be part of it.

We fact-check every story at MATTER.

We fact-check like our lives depend on it.

That’s because, well, in a way they do: At the heart of what we do is an ambition to tell real, true stories that help people understand the world around them. And if we don’t have a reputation, we don’t have anything. Fact-checking is a key part of our reputation as a credible source and publication. If we lose credibility, we lose everything we have built.

First page of our fact-checking report for “Bad Blood”, conducted by Fangfei Shen. The queries are highlighted in yellow.

What does fact-checking even mean?

Every time we produce a story, we pay a trained fact-checker to cross-reference every statement, talk to every source, look up every reference, run through every element of a story before it’s published to ensure that we’re portraying it accurately. They provide us with a report, suggesting changes, raising concerns, explaining why this word should be changed for that word, or why this section doesn’t make sense.

Above you can see a part of the fact-check from one of our stories, about the murder of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko. There were three separate reports, with an almost countless number of checks and 114 distinct queries.

This isn’t easy, and it takes time. Sometimes fact-checks can take the guts out of a story. That means you kill the story, or you change it: you don’t absolve yourself from blame just by deciding that not checking is easier. Sometimes fact-checks help you catch a bit of misinformation, or realize that you did something wrong. Lots of times small errors will have crept in, or misreadings, or misunderstandings. Sometimes they’re bigger. Either way, checking your facts makes stories better.

It’s pretty simple, really:

Checking facts is important, because facts are important.

We live in a world where facts often take second place to opinion. But we tend to believe that there are measurable, empirical pieces of evidence that should underpin the world.

That’s not to say that they can’t change. Facts change all the time. Interpretations of tangible things will always be up for grabs. And sometimes evidence shifts, or our understanding evolves, or the data becomes more accurate. But you have to start somewhere.

And the thing is, if we behave like facts don’t matter, then one day they won’t.

Thanks to Madison Kahn

    Bobbie Johnson

    Written by

    Causing trouble since 1978. Former lives at Medium, Matter, the Guardian.

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