Can You Take Fact Checking Too Far?

from the maybe-possibly dept

Earlier this year, there was a lot of attention paid to the popular radio program This American Life (TAL) having to retract its episode based on storyteller Mike Daisey’s one-man show, in which he claimed to be telling a story about his own trip to visit Apple factories in China, but which it later came out was partially fabricated. As we noted soon after that, when it comes to pure storytelling, it’s not always clear that fact checking makes sense. Storytelling is a tool for entertainment, not journalism. Where those two things come into conflict is when people begin to blur the lines between entertainment and journalism.

Since then, of course, TAL has become, shall we say, a lot more vigilant about fact checking. In a recent episode of another radio program, On The Media, TAL host Ira Glass talked about the importance of fact checking and how they realize they can’t get caught again. Glass says the audience will likely forgive them once, but not twice. In a Reddit AMA that Glass did a few weeks ago, he explained that TAL has hired professional fact checkers:

We used to fact check the way they do on the daily NPR news shows (where I worked before doing this show): editors and reporters consult about questionable facts, rundown stuff in an ad hoc way.

Now we have professional fact checkers for everything, including the personal essays.

However, he also notes that, when it comes to “storytelling” it’s not always so easy, using regular TAL contributor David Sedaris as the example:

Still a question is what to do about David Sedaris. He doesn’t pretend the stories are true. He says to everyone they’re “true enough for you.” I assume the audience can tell, he’s a funny writer, there may be exaggerations for comic effect. We have three choices: 1) assume the audience is smart enough to tell; 2) label his stuff on the air as possibly non-factual (hard to figure out a way to do that which doesn’t kill the fun but there probably is one); 3) fact check him the way the New Yorker does. I honestly don’t know where I stand on this one. When I pose the Q to public radio audiences, at speeches and events, they overwhelmingly vote #1, with a vociferous tiny minority who feel strongly in favor of #2.

But, as an avid TAL listener, in the past few weeks, I’ve noticed that they do seem to be going overboard with the fact checking. In episode 476 from a few weeks ago, there’s a story of a teenager bitten by a shark and the aftermath (it’s a somewhat horrifying story). And yet, in the middle of the story, there’s a break where they admit that they could not confirm she was actually bitten by a shark — and some think it was a different sea creature responsible. No one denies that she was attacked and bitten and came close to dying, in part through a series of mishaps. But they feel the need to fact check the possibility that it wasn’t a shark. I’m not sure what that adds to the story (other than immediately making me think of Mike Daisey).

Then, in the very next episode, from last weekend, there’s the hilarious story from comedian Molly Shannon, which I’d first heard on Marc Maron’s (insanely brilliant) podcast, WTF, about how, as a kid, she and a friend — with the active encouragement of Molly’s father — successfully stowed away on a flight from Cleveland to NYC. But at the very end… Glass chimes in to say that TAL fact checkers reached out to Molly’s friend — who had no idea Molly had told the story publicly, but who confirmed all the details in the story. Once again, all I could think of was… “Mike Daisey strikes again.” The story is hilarious, whether or not it’s true, and I wonder if it really needs fact checking.

It may just be a case of “once bitten…” but fact checking minute details of random entertaining stories really feels like overkill. And it actually has me thinking about another recent podcast/radio show (also associated with NPR), Radiolab, which recently had an entire episode on the nature of facts, and trying to figure out what is a fact. The episode has since been marred in its own controversy over the segment called Yellow Rain, in which they sought to try to understand the “truth” behind whether or not there were really chemical attacks on the Hmong in Laos in 1975. The segment culminates with Kao Kalia Yang (who is translating for her uncle Eng Yang) getting extremely angry at the Radiolab crew, as the Yangs felt that they were set up by the radio program, somewhat as stooges, because Eng talked about the “yellow rain” chemical attacks, and Radiolab wanted his response to the research of scientists who argue no such chemical attack ever existed. It’s very intense — and a situation that I felt really did make their point pretty strongly that “truth” isn’t always as easy to discern as people think, because it’s often not quite as black and white as people imagine.

Radiolab had to clarify and later offer an apology to those who felt that the interview was unfair, overly confrontational, insulting or minimizing the plight of the Hmong. Unfortunately, I think that obscures the much more interesting point that they were actually making with that story — which I don’t think did minimize the experiences of the Hmong at all, but rather highlighted how, even if the actual explanation of what happened differed from how they viewed it, what they did experience was horrific.

However, unlike the TAL stories, perhaps you could argue that Radiolab effectively took fact checking too far in a different direction — in that they were using it to challenge some of the life-defining moments of some people. I actually side with the Radiolab folks there, in that I think they did exactly what they should have done as journalists, in coming across facts that go against the narrative, though the way it was handled could have been done more sensitively.

Either way, this handful of stories and events, once again, seems to highlight how fact checking isn’t quite as simple a proposition as some would like it to be. We all have fun calling out stories where reporters make mistakes — they happen all the time. And often, it’s because of lazy or sloppy journalism — in which case it’s quite reasonable to call things out. But not everything is a black and white issue all the time, even when it comes to fact checking.

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Comments on “Can You Take Fact Checking Too Far?”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Radiolab controversy is not an example of fact-checking going too far

Radiolab caused controversy not because they overdid their fact-checking, but because they talked to non-Western experts in a way that’s an expression of a systemic problem in the way Western scientists and reporters talk to non-Western people.

I’m an avid reader of Techdirt and usually love the analysis here. But this posts twists what happened with Radiolab into a story about fact-checking going too far, while what actually happened had nothing to do with any supposed tendency of news outlets to fact-check too much. What bothered so many people about Radiolab’s approach to their Yellow Rain segment was how they set everything up to make the US scientists sound like experts, and Eng Yang as some random guy who needed his own experience explained to him – instead of the expert he actually was. This isn’t an isolated failure of some Radiolab folks to “handle things sensitively”. It’s an expression of the well-established tendency of Western scientists and reporters to look down on knowledge produced outside of what they consider “reliable” (academic, Western) frames of reference. It’s a systemic problem that is absolutely not new. (Techdirt is proving the existence of that systemic problem right here, by linking four times to Radiolab and not once to anything directly from the mouth of Eng Yang or Kao Kalia Yang, like her long and thoughtful analysis about where she thinks Radiolab went wrong.)

Anonymous Coward says:

There are very few actual facts out there. I saw a program on the Discovery channel once where a group of 12 people witnessed a theft in the park. All of the people were interviewed separately, and none of the eyewitness accounts were the same. Later on, the conductors of the experiment planted false witness in among the real ones – the plants gave false information, and actually persuaded some of the real eyewitnesses that the information was correct.

The point being, most facts (maybe all facts) are based on perception.

scichotic (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I never liked that line of thinking. Facts are not based on perception, they are things perceived. The persuasion in your example was a distortion of the individual’s perception, not of the facts themselves. Did they do a fact-by-fact comparison between all accounts and report the numbers that were in-sync version those conflicting, and so on? Considering it was from the Discovery channel, I would doubt it.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Eyewitness reports are not facts. They are an indirect form of evidence at best. Not only that, but they the least reliable form of evidence, especially when the event being witnessed is an unexpected one.

We all tend to see (as in literally see with our eyes, as well as perceive with our understanding) what we expect to see, not what is actually there.

Anonymous Coward says:

This seems to conflate fact checking (the routine verification of readily verifiable facts) with the much broader notion of determining the truth of controversial questions. A “fact” like “Kansas produced a trillion bushels of wheat in 1998” can be checked against official published sources. It just takes some work. On the other hand, a claim like “wheat production in Kansas is declining due to meth addiction” can’t simply be checked against an authoritative source. It’s beyond the realm of fact checking and into the realm of journalism.

Anonymous Cowherd says:

A smart audience would recognize everything is “possibly non-factual.”

A wise audience would recognize that most of the time, whether a story is true or not makes no difference at all.

But of course, it’s the dumb audience that will complain when they are mistaken about such things, so they get the warnings.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Story telling

That’s not why. Fox news is the one that got a court rule that news agencies have no legal obligation to tell the truth. They were sued for wrongful termination by a couple of reporters who were fired for refusing to lie in their news reports. The court ruled that lying is news reports is not illegal, so reporters can be legally fired for refusing to do so.

OldMugwump (profile) says:

Most of the problem starts when journalists feel they have to pretend they’re impartial and “just presenting the facts”(as they’re taught to in journalism school), instead of presenting their honest interpretation of the apparent facts.

This is something that’s less than 100 years old – since the rise of “professional” journalism in the middle of the 20th century

If journalists were interested in truth, they wouldn’t pretend impartiality (they?re human, of course they have opinions of their own). Instead they?d openly admit their viewpoint and let the reader judge their arguments.

There are still countless newspapers in the US with ?Republican? or ?Democrat? in their title. I suspect the relatively high esteem which journalists enjoy is a legacy from the era when these newspapers were founded.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“the problem starts when journalists feel they have to pretend they’re impartial”

A bigger problem results when the reader lacks multiple sources of various bias from which to look for corroborating details. Minuscule remnants of reality can usually be interpolated from multiple points of view accompanied with knowledge of the inherent bias.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Most of the problem starts when journalists feel they have to pretend they’re impartial and “just presenting the facts”(as they’re taught to in journalism school), instead of presenting their honest interpretation of the apparent facts.

This is really what they’re teaching in journalism school? No wonder journalism is dead.

Journalism is not simply compiling and reporting facts. That’s the job of encyclopedias. Journalism is about getting people to understand what is happening in the world, understanding the truth.

Facts can help you to determine the truth, but facts and truth are two different things with a large overlap in the Venn diagram.

F! says:

Radiolab controversy is not an example of fact-checking going too far

I heard the Raidiolab program in question, and I just wanted to say your post strongly echos my feelings about what they did. They came across as condescending and arrogant and they could not have handled it any worse. It made me very uncomfortable listening to it, and pretty much ruined my appreciation of the Radiolab series.

Zoe says:

Re: Radiolab controversy is not an example of fact-checking going too far

I concur. It is funny how some people call themselves experts. I remember watching a CNN news show and they had a guy who called himself terrorism expert, he went on and on about terrorism in the middle east. Yet, this so-called expert has never stepped foot in the region or experienced anything close to terrorism. I guess if you read a lot of books and spend all your fuckin’ time in the library, you are more reliable than the actual person lived and experienced the problem close and personal. Any hoot, It’s not so much the content, but the delivery and handling of the content that made the whole situation uncomfortable. Radiolab came across very arrogant and bullish to the Yangs. It’s NOT good.

Anonymous Coward says:

I disagree, fact checking is simple, you either can find a source or you can’t and if you can’t you say so.

How it is done is a different proposition, people can argue the fine points of it. Some people are more sensible than others.

The rest people can sort it out, is like looking at the code of something, you just need access to it to make up your own mind.

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