Tackling ‘alternative facts’

Well, it’s not usual in the slightest, and that’s the point.

The numerous breaks from protocol in the world of US politics have been disorienting enough, but the implications for the journalists just bring all of that into a stark and very acute relief: the US has a President who has yet to yield his private Twitter account, who still apparently seems confused by the term ‘fake news’, who is openly hostile to the press, whose response to any negative press seems to be to brand those responsible ‘failing’ and who – and I take a deep breath here for even dipping a toe into the water of this one – cannot stop obsessing about the size of the crowd in attendance at his inauguration.

So, as much we’d prefer not to wade into this particular political quagmire, we’re going to because to comment on the future of journalism at this point is to pass comment on the week’s events.

Fact are facts

And so, onwards to Kellyanne Conway. Her morning appearance on ‘Meet the Press’ last week briefly set the Twittersphere ablaze. In asserting that press secretary Sean Spicer had ‘alternative facts’ which would back up the claim that Trump’s inauguration crowd was the largest of its kind, host Chuck Todd was clearly taken aback.

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“Alternative facts are not facts. They are falsehoods,” was his reply. Todd didn’t press her for concrete evidence of those assertions, and Conway moved quickly onward to her objection with the prevailing tone of the journalistic fraternity, so we’re none the wiser as to which specific ‘facts’ she was alluding to.

She’s not entirely wrong. For any single event, there are necessarily going to exist a plethora of facts, and some may contradict the narrative that’s being told. So, yes, facts are facts. It’s the alternative conclusions which we should be addressing.

Alexios Mantzarlis, for example, points out some of these alternative facts (though I would term them additional facts) which might explain the smaller crowd size on January 20 and include: D.C.’s overwhelmingly Democratic population, the fact the inauguration took place in the rain, the degree of inaccuracy in measuring a crowd size. Says Mantzarlis, “none of these prove Trump’s inauguration crowd was the biggest in history, but they are not falsehoods either.”

The point is that we (and by ‘we’, clearly I mean certain individuals hell bent on crafting an ‘alternative’ narrative, all abundant, provable evidence to the contrary be damned) can hope only to tell a truth based on the balance of evidence available to us. The idea of a single ‘objective’ truth – or ‘an objective reality’ – is misguided at best. All we can do is to form opinion as a result of the substantiated information that we’ve collected.

No, not everyone can be right

There’s a thought experiment, much beloved of training seminar coordinators, where two people are arguing about whether the number written in front of them is a six or a nine.

While it’s a useful lesson in empathy and compromise, it’s also a questionable exercise in what can be categorized as ‘fact’ because, at the point this number was drawn on the ground, it was – like it or not – either a 6 or a 9. Fundamentally one of those two people has to be wrong. Don’t they?

Conway’s assertion that these ‘alternative facts’ might somehow legitimize an alternative narrative – and a narrative which requires you to the dismiss the narrative supported by the majority of facts available and the conclusion drawn from them – are plainly nonsensical.

Back in the heady days of the campaign, Kelly Riddell, writing for The Washington Times, made this comment:

Many times these ‘fact-checkers’ ignore the larger point to focus on the validity of the minutia

This is an important point, well made. Similar thoughts were articulated throughout the campaign, and in those early head-scratching days of the post-election world most quotably by Salena Zito in The Atlantic when she said that, “The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”

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Among examples of instances where the ‘liberal media’s’ obsession with fact-checking had somehow distorted the story, Riddell writes:

“(2) Trump quote/assertions: “Mrs. Clinton destroyed 13 smartphones with a hammer while she was secretary of state.” (Speeches in Florida, Sept. 15 and Sept. 19)

Fact-check: “An aide told the FBI of only two occasions in which phones were destroyed by a hammer.”

Now, she and I may draw slightly different conclusions from this summation, but I think what we can agree on is this: reporting the correction of detail is not news and it certainly isn’t ‘journalism’. It’s fact checking. The Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, Mei Fong, goes further:

“In Chinese, the word for journalist is dizhe — literally ‘recorder’. But journalism is not stenography. It’s truth-telling. We need to remember that.”

We’re seeing all of this in the days since the election with the issue of crowd size. There are absolutely, unequivocally many good reasons why this should be covered (not least because of the President’s curious obsession with it himself – why even bring it up?), but please! At some point enough is enough, surely? We need to, as Peter Fray wrote last week, “separate facts from commentary and analysis” and furthermore recognize that, while both have merit, we need both – not one masquerading as the other. Without context, facts are but footnotes untethered from their narrative.

Lies, damn lies

Readers are not reporters. It therefore stands to reason that readers are not going to want – or expect – to do the kind of fact checking that six months ago we would have assumed all stories passed through before they went to print. We buy into whatever publication we read with a kind of tacit understanding that what we’re reading is of value and has been presented in its finished form, properly verified.

Whether there’s a complicated media strategy at play here, or whether President Trump’s administration is as confused as we, the public, feel, what is certain is that their fixation on alternative facts should not give credence to their alternative narratives they seem to be proffering. Fact checking has been an important tool in the fight against the fake news epidemic, but as a means to counter a culture of alternative facts – and the narratives they support, perhaps we need to reconsider.

Correcting factual inconsistencies is absolutely paramount, but presented as an ongoing story is surely only going to consolidate the news fatigue that seems rife.

When readers feel they have to make a deliberate effort to start fact checking articles in newspapers themselves, it’s not hard to see why they might just walk away from the news altogether.

The crowd size (here we go again) issue, which just rumbles on and on, is a case in point. When the New York Times printed the words ‘the footage on this page was captured 45 minutes before each oath of office’ in the first paragraph of an article about comparative crowd sizes, it made it obvious to readers that they were indeed making a fair comparison between the two photographs, by crediting sources, stating the time frame each picture occupied properly. Yes, it’s basic practice, but it’s also a way to remain steadfast in the face of continued allegations of ‘being’ fake news.

Left: 2009 Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images/ Right: 2017 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee

Even in the run up to the election itself examples of journalists ‘showing their workings’ were being circulated as a way to bolster trust in the institution. David Farenthold, a journalist for the Washington Post, famously took to Twitter with scans of his handwritten notes for a story looking at Trump’s charitable donations. This kind of transparency can only improve reader trust at a time when we keep hearing those levels are so very, very low. That small inclusion in the body of that New York Times article did the same thing: provided readers with a road map which both highlighted that due diligence had been paid, and that those journalists were following a code of good practice. We often hear talk of the need to bolster ‘reader literacy’ and it’s markers like these which might help in this endeavor: if you are shown an evidence-based argument, can trace sources you will start to notice when other articles fail to include similar attributions.

A new reality

Back in November, The CUNY J-School Twitter account reported that Jay Rosen – as part of the symposium at the school – had said that journalism doesn’t have any force or effect unless people elect to live in a reality-based society.

Now, it’s quite easy to see that the news – and especially the kind of news we became used to reading in 2016 – would be enough to turn anyone onto a complete diet of kitten memes, but without some measured and credentialed analysis, surely we’re spinning into a very strange twilight zone.

Good writing should enrich. It should not incite malevolent action and misdeeds

We could spend too many hours, waste too many column inches, trying to understand what’s going on in the Oval Office and West Wing through traditional means alone. The channels of communication between the press corps and the West Wing clearly aren’t running like they used to. If press access is restricted and press briefings offer no opportunities for questions, then it’s time to stop courting those sources and find another route in to whichever story needs to be told. If the credibility and veracity of our work is being questioned, all we can do is to double down and ensure that our what we do publish is ironclad and unimpeachable.

The danger with the current hysteria over alternative facts – and much more besides – is that by focusing too much on them, actual stories are being obfuscated. It would be very easy to get sucked into a vortex where one side seeks to delegitimize the other, the other defends its position and we repeat ad infinitum as if it’s more important to delegitimize that it is to report. For the time being at least, it has become very necessary to batten down the hatches and get on with the job at hand.

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