Fact vs. Truth vs. Journalism
There is a tension in journalism. It is not new — but it is expressing itself in different ways. Like water to fish, the tension is so ever-present we forget it is there.
It is the tension between truths and facts. The two don’t always align.
A great example of this in recent years is the Mike Daisy incident with This American Life.
Mike Daisy had a great story about Foxconn, the company that manufactures Apple Inc. products in China. We learned about the exploitation of workers. Their horrid working conditions. Their low wages. Their struggles. It turned out — much of the story was a fabrication.
From the correction by Ira Glass (emphasis added)
I have difficult news. We’ve learned that Mike Daisey’s story about Apple in China — which we broadcast in January — contained significant fabrications. We’re retracting the story because we can’t vouch for its truth.
Here’s the thing. This American Life probably could vouch for the truth of the FoxxConn story. I don’t think there is anybody who could earnestly deny the truth of worker exploitation in China. To dedicate a show about factory workers in China who suffer these working conditions is a good thing. But the specifics of Daisy’s story were all a mess. The facts. The accuracy. The details. They weren’t just wrong — they were lies. It was a tall tale Daisy spun. He did not do this to be evil, but to get the truth across. For him the purpose of the story was to share a truth, not the facts.
This concept is nothing new. But the speed and quantity of stories with this inherent tension (fact vs. truth) have increased. Marketers and meme makers have used this, I would argue, to their advantage.
Some of you may have recently seen a viral video of a woman pretending to be drunk to see how men would treat her. The video went viral with many appalled at how various men tried to take advantage of the girl.
The video was a hoax. Everyone, including the men, were actors. The men were told to play along with a kind of practical joke. They didn’t realize it was going to be shared on the web under the same guise as the video of a woman being cat-called while she walks in New York for 10 hours. They didn’t sign up to be the evil-doers in a culture war.
Certainly there is some “truth” to the scenario the viral video was portraying. It shocks us to our core to confront that aspect of humanity. The same can be said with the cat-calling video.
But the drunk-girl video does not accurately capture the aspect of humanity it claims to show. There is nothing factual about the original video. If you give it a bit of scrutiny it becomes painfully obvious the video is staged.
I can recall watching the video for the first time thinking: “this video looks like bullshit.” And yet, who was I to spit in the face of this truth while it was going viral? Would I be a an evil-patriarch if I called the facts of that video into question? It was only 24hrs later that one of the male actors came out on Facebook upset at the negative attention he was getting and the “drunk” girl in the video came out in defense of the men who were just acting.
It’s easy to pass this off as just a viral mishap. But I think it goes deeper than that.
Where do we square the potential gap in truth/fact in the recent Buzzfeed/Ubergate scandal?
Sure, it might be true that Uber is a libertarian, even ‘cutthroat’ company. But what are the facts behind this story? Some of them seem legitimately in question.
Here’s the situation we find ourselves in.
- Stories move fast. Faster than ever before.
- The internet as a medium of information exchange is neutral on the tension between truth/facts.
- Journalists, I would argue, should have a strong bias (if not an ultimatum) to fall into the ‘accuracy’ or ‘fact’ side of this tension.
- Other actors will have a bias (if not ultimatum) to fall on the ‘truth’ side of this tension.
And we need to figure out how to think about players that want it both ways.
Buzzfeed, for example, does some serious and great reporting.
They also share platitudes like: “This Teacher Taught His Class A Powerful Lesson About Privilege.” This post draws out a lesson plan where students must try to shoot crumpled paper into a trash can. Students at the front of the room have an advantage over those in the back. This is how the teacher explains “privilege” to the students. It’s an excellent little platitude and it certainly has some truth to it.
But does this teacher really exist? Did this lesson really happen? Are the quotes really quotes or a general accounting of the incident? And, most importantly — for a post like this, does it really matter? We don’t fact-check stories from Chicken Soup for the Soul because their purpose is to convey truth, not fact. This story falls into that space. And that’s not a bad thing. These stories do indeed feed the soul. I’ve told my fair share of campy moral filled fables.
But I would never pass them off as journalism. And if they were being published by an organization I ran that does journalism — I’d want to clearly define when switching from fact to truth. As a dated analogy: If a newspaper’s satirical cartoons were difficult to distinguish from editorial copy — that paper would have a serious charge against it.
Otherwise they could run the headline: Extra Extra: “You’re Perfect The Way That You Are” — and they’d sell tons of papers.
Speaking of “You’re Perfect in the way that you are” check out this awesome video of a guy doing 29 impersonations while singing a catchy original song.
OH CRAP! The video above is not a fact. But it is true!
p.s. Mashable was taken along for that ride and is a great example of another post: When we correct ourselves and turn that into an opportunity to write another post/article/etc. Something about it feels dirty, like double-dipping.