JUST FACTS: What's a journalist to do about truth today?

Posted May 6, 2021
By Ivor Shapiro

As the meaning of "fact" continues to morph, reporters' routines and assumptions need refreshing, too. One key ingredient: humility 

OK, class, it's quiz time. Which ONE of the following statements is most accurate?

  1. Toronto police officers are trigger-happy.
  2. Prince Philip was a racist. 
  3. The AstraZeneca vaccine is safe.
  4. Wearing a mask prevents the transmission of Covid -19.
  5. Lockdowns are the most effective means to save lives during a pandemic. 
  6. Human activity accelerates climate change.
  7. Midwifery, unlike journalism or plumbing, is a profession.
  8. Most statements in this list are false.
  9. Most statements in this list are matters of opinion.
  10. Two statements in this list are verifiably accurate.

Time's up, please pass your papers to the aisles. 

For the "correct" answer, according to me, see below[1]. If yours differs, then we likely agree on something more important: that it can be tough to separate facts from perspectives, and truth from fiction. 

Burning over your quiz grade, nevertheless? Alright, here's a bonus-marks opportunity: which famous newspaper editor said the following?

“Sometimes I fear that we put a lower news value on published ascertainable and verifiable fact than we put upon unsupported assertion or allegation of fact that we have exclusively discovered by our own journalistic ingenuity. With us, a 'fact' sometimes loses news value the instant it is known while rumour, report, and conjecture attain and acquire greater respect as 'new' by their sheer novelty…. A well-known public official last year won national applause by criticizing the media...”

Let's not see all the same hands. Yes, it was J. Russell Wiggins, a former editor of The Washington Post, speaking in (want to guess?) 1971.

Wiggins said that, as a reader, he liked “to have one clear unobstructed glimpse of the naked truth before it is dressed up in someone else's surmise and conjecture.” Whether a journalist “is so old-fashioned and square as to desire to give information in an objective, fair and impartial way, or so modern and committed as to wish to practise the journalism of advocacy,” they deserve trust only when “digging harder for the facts,” Wiggins said—however “unpalatable” or “painful” those facts may be.

Fifty years later, the attempted unclothing of facts from perspectives remains the most precarious and least avoidable role of journalism. 

What's True Depends on Whom You Know

Only recently has the idea of separating facts from non-facts in the news evoked much popular discussion. A few philosophers, social scientists, and shit-disturbers raised periodic questions, though few of those got or wanted jobs at CBC, Le Monde, Vox, or Vice

Today’s zeitgeist, howeverwelcomes a new breed of fact—a kind of common sensibility that’s built, not on critical thinking about accuracy, but on what people infer from their lived experience. 

Sorry: not just these days. The innate problems of epistemology have been recognized since Socrates (or was it Plato?) asked whether a human being can ever know, for certain, what's real.

The answer may be, probably not, but any degree of certainty we aspire to is the blended product of personal experiment and interpersonal experience. 

Watch a toddler figuring out the shape of reality. Is this table alive? Bang! guess not. Is this shiny substance liquid? Oops! time to start crying. Is grass edible? Mom's freaking out, so maybe not. 

When I was growing up in apartheid South Africa, most White children considered Black people to have inferior intelligence. This was not an opinion, but a "known fact," unquestioned, because parents said so, as did practically everyone who wasn't, well, biased by their own Blackness. This and many other kinds of false "knowing" are what life experience produces under tyranny and segregation. 

Today, I think I know better, and so does my son. But access to knowledge is largely accidental: parents, teachers, and friends steer one to a certain version of what's real and what's not. Even the capacity to accept or question scientific proofs is a capacity built under the influence of similarly equipped others. That's why sharing experiences, rather than arguing about facts, is generally the most promising way to persuade others to review their personal realities.[2]

Is that a fact—or an opinion?

So, is the equality of all humans, so self-evident to you (as I presume) and to me, a fact or a perspective? 

Or, perhaps, both? As Viviane Fairbank[3] recently wrote in The Walrusopinion and truth don't necessarily "exist in different realms.” And what this means for journalists is that removing interpretation entirely from factual reporting is impossible.” 

Scientific truth, for example, evolves with time. Little more than a year ago, public health experts stated, and journalists repeated, that wearing masks outdoors was unnecessary and wasteful. Soon afterward, "following the science," we equated masklessness with reckless endangerment until that, too, was wrong. Perspective-laden knowledge wars have followed every move toward and away from lockdowns, whether in London or Houston, Toronto or Calgary. By September, Europeans had the virus licked; theatres reopened "safely"—and then closed, and now it's India's autumn tale that reeks knowledge-hubris. 

Like science, like politics. Tens of millions of Americans believeas a matter of fact, that their current president's election was rigged. They "know" this, in large part because all of their friends and neighbours "know" likewise. No one's even trying to persuade anyone anymore that they're wrong about all this—what on earth would be the point?

In fairness to journalists, I think most set out quite conscientiously to tease real news from the fake kind. But when their stories are placed under what Fairbank fairly calls “nakedly partisan” headlines (as in the US election example), it’s the headlines, rather than the component, verifiable, piecemeal facts — that get some stories shared more than others, and then reshared exponentially until a story becomes canonical in a particular community of virtual faith.  

Similarly polarized truth-recognition happens to so-called fact-check stories that debunk particular, selected, versions of reality, as Fairbank pointed out: 

“Fact checks that begin with the implicit premise ‘look how wrong and stupid these people are’ lead only to greater mistrust between groups, and they probably won’t convince anyone who did not already believe in the facts presented.”   

Simple Facts, Complex Origins 

Not all facts provoke dispute. TSX gains 2%, Nasdaq steady would generally be believed, if it doesn't ascribe causes. Likewise, Rain predicted for next three days, or, maybe somedayLeafs win Cup

But if strictly "factual" stories are rare, don't just blame pesky theories about certainty's attainability. More practical factors are at play. 

Every story starts when a human being selects it from newswires or conversation as more deserving of attention than a bunch of other things now going on. Then a reporter or producer gets to work, with varying ambition. They might, or might not, interview a range of sources, check assertions against documents, or summarize a press release. An editor might, or might not, be available to vet the draft, and whether or not the reported facts spark your neurons depends on how it's distributed—that is, more choices, some made by humans, others by algorithms

As for what the story means, that may depend on whether the subject matter provokes strong feelings—carbon pricing, pandemic control, racial justice, the Middle East. The experiences and assumptions of both journalists and audiences can profoundly affect how facts are relayed and received. 

Them's the facts, but wait, there's more.

The Art of the Matter

Even more complex than the credibility of reported facts is their collective arrangement. Journalists don't just shout piecemeal units of information, they shape a story intended to intrigue you, engage you, and, perhaps above all, persuade you of its reliability. Its shape is further constrained by the means of production: the available video or audio, the chosen length and placement, and a bunch of more technical stuff. 

And, of course, the choice of words. Their meaning, too, evolves through humans' interactions and associations: what does trauma mean now, versus in 1980? How about safetyfreedom(fe)male, or fact? Words' meaning often depends on who's saying and hearing them, when, and in what context. 

And, oh, I almost forgot this one: journalists' reliance on how living sources remember events. Memories are not facts: they get distorted by time, by impressions and assumptions, and by will: sometimes the constructed memory has evolved out of what one either wishes (or fears) had happened, or what has been suggested as fact by others. 

Sources, and the lack of them

Early in 1983, I travelled close to the northern border of Namibia, where South African forces were fighting a guerilla war against the liberation movement, Swapo. While there, I met church leaders and members who told horrific stories of soldiers murdering and assaulting civilians and destroying homes and church facilities. I was given dates, place names, and photographs, one of which showed the bodies of women and children piled in a ditch. 

As editor of the Anglican Church's newspaper, I'd stumbled on an important story—and a big problem. In pre-democratic South Africa, it was illegal to publish information about military activities without first obtaining official confirmation. As if. But, of course, I requested an interview with the government forces' chief spokesperson, a Colonel Ken Snowball who, against all expectations, invited me to his office in Windhoek. 

I started my recorder, laid out what I'd been told (saying nothing about photographs) and waited for a ritual denial, which never came. 

Instead, the colonel "wondered about the truth of" the church leaders' accounts, which he thought "exaggerated." Rather than blame everything on opposing forces, he allowed that there were inevitably "bad eggs" on both sides. And, as I reviewed my notes, I realized that publishing my story might now technically be legal, if cast as they-say-yes, he-says-exaggerated, like this: 

Ambiguous as the headline and some copy had to be, it was the first time that these events had been reported inside South Africa. The paper was distributed in churches across the land, and I escaped prosecution. 

But here's my point: whether in a police state or in a free-press democracy, a story like this could never be verified. Its sources, however eminent, only claimed to know eyewitnesses; the photos proved nothing about who was responsible. Adding an official perspective would have been fair, law or no law. The only people who might "know" whom to blame had to be there when the bullets flew. 

Such lack of certainty is unexceptional. Investigative journalists try to check documents, but sometimes find none. The "other side" of a story may be a missing ex-lover or a dead employer. To refuse to report every "one-sided" story doesn’t foster a “neutral” view—it just dismisses the experiences of the available sources. 

Too often, journalists give up on the overwhelming ambiguities and report a story based solely on the "side" most readily available. Too often, that's the official version. And, way too often, that means the police[4] version of criminal allegations. Sure, cops are as adept at lying as anyone, but what they say is news, and no one ever got sued, arrested, or fired for reporting, without rebuttal, the officially sanctioned version of events. 

Verification as a Sort-Of Discipline 

Journalists who recognize the painful unavailability of certainty have been drawn, in recent decades, to the idea that their work inherits integrity from their work routines and standards—the rigours of the famous "discipline of verification." 

But when Laval University scholar Colette Brin and I analyzed how Canadian journalists described their actual procedures, we discovered some important shortcomings of verification in practice. 

At the beginning of our team's interviews, the journalists were asked open-ended questions about how they saw verification and its role in their work. In most cases, the answer was unambiguous: ensuring accuracy was a vital, critical principle, central to their professional identity and social role. 

Then, we showed each subject a story recently published under their name and asked, fact by fact, how they had ascertained it. It swiftly became clear, sometimes to the journalist's embarrassment, that many facts in the story had been verified only ritualistically, if at all. We summarized our chief findings thus:

“Most interviewees expressed passionate support for the norm of verification, but described a range of pragmatic compromises…. Proper names, numbers and some other concrete details were verified with greater care than some other types of factual statement. On the other hand, statements were frequently relayed, with or without attribution, based on a single subject's word…” 

Nor are Canadian news people alone in picking and choosing when to check. The New Yorker famously invented third-party fact-checking but its owners, like most magazine publishers, have dramatically cut back on their investment in verification.

"Beyond debate?" Not likely

Vidya Kauri is assistant managing editor at Law360; her reporting has been published in three large Canadian newspapers, CP24, and Maclean's magazine. Soon after graduating from Ryerson's j-school in 2013, she travelled to Lebanon and cut her freelance reporting teeth selling stories about Syrian refugees. 

It was there, interviewing newly arrived migrants in tents, that she started thinking about the quandary of teasing facts apart from people's self-reported life experience. 

"They talked about their experience," Kauri recalls, "having bombs rain down on their neighborhoods and on their homes, and their experience escaping. I thought: 'I can't go back to the scene, or see how it happened with my own eyes.' 

"I asked myself the question, 'Why would somebody lie about this experience, living in a tent for years on end, with no escape in sight? Well, perhaps they are hoping for someone to overthrow the Syrian Government. And you know, I think, maybe everybody has a motivation in telling their story.'" 


Vidya Kauri

This self-questioning didn't kill Kauri's reporting, but it tested her ongoing practice. As she told me:"

“There are questions we can ask. We can ask where this happened. Which neighborhood did this happen in? What time…? We can compare the story to the accounts of others who also experienced similar things—do they have similar accounts of that basic scaffolding, the structure of what happened? But each person experiences these events differently. Their experience—their evidence—is all there is. We can ask those questions, but there's also a certain point where I think we can trust that. We can present this as somebody's experience."

The delicate balance that Kauri describes is the way trained journalists apply a pragmatic dose of skepticism to people’s descriptions of their experience. If trust evolves from first kiss to mature relationship, then good reporters and their sources are always dating, never married.  

Or maybe it’s more like borrowing a buddy’s car for a journey and then needing a big repair en route. You might ask around before choosing a shop, check online reviews. You’ll study the quote before handing over the keys. You can’t watch what happens when the mechanic’s head is under the hood, but you study the bill before digging out your wallet. You’re not rude to this stranger, the mechanic; you assume neither that all mechanics lie nor that they’re always truthful. You’re a customer, neither a litigator nor a devoted spouse. You ask respectful questions, polite and considerate. You give your friend, the car's owner, what they have a right to expect: a reasonable dose of skepticism. 

Which is exactly what professional journalists do on behalf of their audiences. It’s not the same as certainty or even proof beyond reasonable doubt, but it's a fair and necessary compromise. Enough questions have been asked and enough details shared for people to decide what they might (tentatively, and with due skepticism of their own) choose to believe. 

From time to time, the populace wants journalists to put aside this professional requirement and simply report what they’re told. When a country goes to war, many journalists fall in with the government line. The justness of the cause, the heroism of the troops, and the reprehensibility of the enemy are beyond debate, and curious reporters morph into credulous stenographers.  

The same goes for the war against injustice. When a Vancouver-based legal magazine, The Advocate, began asking lawyers for their reactions to a new requirement of specifying pronoun preference in B.C.’s courts, it was warned this topic was not "open to debate, and that criticism of the [courts’] directions may amount to hate speech.” 

Similarly, the war against disease. For much of 2020, many Canadian journalists seemed to treat Covid-19 prevention tactics as unworthy of skepticism—even when those tactics took 90-degree turns. In recent months, as some government decisions and some public health messages became almost ludicrously transient, journalists have successively slid into home base and begun asking serious questions. 

But, whenever journalists embed with combatants, thus immunizing an area of public interest from healthy skepticism, I can't help feeling frightened. It reminds me of my youth under apartheid, when terrible facts were forcibly removed from sight, and so many official perspectives were "beyond debate." 

News is a blurry portrait of the day  

Two years after the Second World War ended, newsprint remained in short supply in the United Kingdom and so, therefore, did news itself. This was a problem, according to author Rebecca West, because: 

“If people do not have the face of the age set clearly before them they begin to imagine it; and fantasy, if it is not disciplined by the intellect and kept in faith with reality by the instinct of art, dwells among the wishes and fears of childhood, and so sees life either as simply answering any prayer or as endlessly emitting nightmare monsters from a womb-like cave.”  

Reported facts may paint "the face of the age” but, if everything above this line is to be believed, those reports lack photographic precision. They're just reports; they convey what's likely to be true, and show why that's the case. 

Maybe that's dispiriting, but the absence of certainty doesn't make a job pointless. A doctor is supposed to base diagnosis, treatment, and advice on the best available evidence. If someone of roughly my age, sex, and circumstances, exhibiting my symptoms, with these test results, is likely to be suffering from X and to benefit from Y, well, that's close enough for a diagnosis and a plan. 

For news media, too, likely must suffice as close enough to truth. Journalists' reports are shades of reality from which they and their audiences deduce what's out of sight, as did the prisoners in Plato's cave

It helps if everyone involved in producing and consuming news appreciates that journalists' awkward, unwelcome questions, and the answers they get, are as limited in scope as an artist's palette. The blurry portraits that result may eventually allow the age’s shy face may reveal itself, but never in high definition. 

Adding rough brushstrokes to history is not as lofty a purpose as “all the news that’s fit to print,” but at least it's achievable, with hard and focused work. When Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel promoted verification as the “essence" of journalism, they didn't expect every reported fact to pass the tests of social science. They merely offered five quite realistic intellectual principles for responsible reporting, namely:

“1. Never add anything that was not there.
2. Never deceive the audience.
3. Be transparent as possible about your methods and motive. 
4. Rely on your own original reporting.
5. Exercise humility.” 

I'm biased (no, really) but confess to special affection for number 5. Humility is an oft-neglected idea that you might recall next time you hear a news anchor asking an Ottawa correspondent something along the lines of, "What's going through the prime minister’s mind right now?"

If the question gets any answer except, "I haven't the faintest idea," you'll know how journalism looks at its most hubristic, when it slips the surly bonds of fact or even opinion, powered sunward by false prowess until, perhaps, it earns a just and calamitous fall. 

NOTES


[1]. My smart-ass answer is that statement 10 is—because number 6 is—most verifiably factual. Statements 3, 4, and 7 rest on words that are open to interpretation: “safe” and “prevented” suggest 100% effectiveness, and what exactly is a “profession”? Numbers 1, 2, and 5 are matters of opinion, which collectively falsify statements 8 (because opinions are neither true nor false) and 9 (because the "majority" of ten would be six). 

[2]. From my first CFE essay: "…We ranged the White kids down one wall, the others opposite, and told them: 'Talk.'…. There was shouting, there were tears, and hugs… Friendships were formed, political realities clarified, career paths shifted… Speaking freely, and listening, changed their lives.

[3].  Disclosure: Viviane Fairbank is a Ryerson journalism graduate and former student of mine, as are Vidya Kauri and several other smart people quoted in my CFE essays since October. I am lucky to have learned at least as much from former students (both in and out of class) as they ever did from me. 

[4].  Even judges—allegedly the closest we have to “objective” neutrals—sometimes lean toward witnesses in positions of authority, as a former Supreme Court justice seems to have done with respect to the former dean’s version of disputed events at the University of Toronto's Law School.