Sometimes we hear news users say in frustration that they “don’t know what to believe” is true and factual when reading news reports. That not only applies to weeding out fake news, of course, but more recently to “alternative facts.” The Trump administration’s use of the term seems to question the very definition of what constitutes a “fact.”
But facts, as founding father John Adams, famously said,
“are stubborn things and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
For starters, a “fact” to us is something that is verifiable and documented by multiple reliable and accountable sources. By accountable we mean that a source takes responsibility for documenting the origin and accuracy of facts as they know them.
As we often say, news users have to take matters into their own hands and be their own editors. They have to use a reporter’s techniques and mindset to help them sift the wheat from the chaff. Here are some suggestions:
- Seek out original source documents and reports are often as possible. It can take digging at times but many things are right at your fingertips online from reputable sources.
- Ask and expect sources to back up claims, beliefs or opinions; they should be able to present evidence for their positions.
- Don’t allow a source to cherry-pick facts that support their position or opinion. Their willingness to cite or least acknowledge conflicting information indicates open-mindedness vs. rigid adherence to a position or, to paraphrase Adams, the “dictates of their passion.” This does not include a license for the source to merely speculate or introduce doubt to deflect your question. Be as stubborn as the facts.
- Ask yourself why or what purpose a source may have in taking a particular position. Look for a broader context. This doesn’t mean there’s backchannel maneuvering worthy of Game of Thrones or House of Cards. But there’s often a history to a story.
- Above all, maintain your openness to new info as it comes in.
Our goal in fact finding is not to win a debate based on who was most persuasive or better liked. Very few things in life are black-and-white or consumable in a soundbite or a single story. Life — and the news — happens in shades of grey and over time. The goal instead is to develop a working understanding of a given situation based on the facts as best as we can determine them. Your ability to know what to believe will grow and become more nuanced and discerning without surrendering to cynicism. With so much change and turmoil, now’s the time to dig in more than ever in order to stay informed.
Protecting the truth in the age of Trump Five lessons from my reporting in the former Eastern Bloc, by Todd Milbourn on Medium
A Finder’s Guide To Facts, by NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep