Through the looking glass: fact-checking in the digital age

Truth is NOT relative – and you can find it.

fact-checking, alice in wonderland

 

There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts,” announced Scottie Nell Hughes, CNN political commentator, on NPR recently. She added that throughout the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, “…people that say facts are facts, they’re not really facts…it’s kind of like looking at ratings or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true.”

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Feel as if you’ve just slipped down Alice’s rabbit hole to hear the White Queen exclaim, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast?” Exercising similarly little judgment, a man barged into a Washington, D.C., pizzeria, brandishing an assault rifle last December to investigate a fake news story about an alleged child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton. Solid ground seems to be giving way as more people skip along the conveyor belt of rumor, emotion, and supposition. It didn’t begin with the election – although that certainly amplified it.

Let’s be clear: There are facts; there is truth. Hughes isn’t referencing objective fact, but the idea that subjective truth is relative – and that sometimes folks take it as reality and run with it. We see the same movie: I say the movie is awful; you say it’s wonderful. These are our subjective truths about it; in other words, our opinions. But is Lewis Carroll the pseudonym of Alice author Charles L. Dodgson? Barring the discovery of a new Dodgson diary stating otherwise, the answer is fact. We may choose not to believe it; we might even campaign that Dodgson’s pseudonym was Louis XIV, but no matter how many true-believers we gather, that wild opinion is no more fact than Alice’s magical rabbit hole.

All praise to writerly imagination, but facts, too, are our friends.

Clearly, our nonfiction must, by definition, be not fiction; but fiction, as well, often requires factual basis. You wouldn’t, for example, have your fictional horse eating hamburgers – unless you had previously established it as anthropomorphic. Case in point: the French Quarter of New Orleans was a setting in my children’s novel Nothing Stays the Same Forever. The protagonist, Carrie, visits an art store there. My editor believed that the Quarter wouldn’t have an art store. I’d seen one, but to be certain, I checked a Louisiana phonebook – and called to make sure they sold what Carrie purchased.

All praise to writerly imagination, but facts, too, are our friends. It’s laudable that Facebook plans to review stories for veracity, but as Jessica Lessin indicates in her New York Times opinion piece, “Facebook Shouldn’t Fact-Check,” we should neither count on them to review everything nor to ignore their own business interests when they review. We need to be able to unearth facts and distinguish them from rumors and responses ourselves.

Consider the information go-to, the internet, a.k.a. the World Wide Rumor Mill. We need barely stop writing to grab a fast “fact” online. But there, especially, not all statements are valid, no matter how oft-repeated. Library databases, especially college databases, put us on firmer footing in determining truth. Databases gather previously published and usually fact-checked material. (The cream of this crop will be peer-reviewed material found in academic or scholarly journals; experts examine these articles for accuracy. Because researching, writing, and reviewing such articles takes time, the material won’t be “the news as it breaks;” for that we need daily newspapers, whether on- or offline.) Beware that some databases are less discriminating: A newspaper database, for example, will gather up all articles, from the New York Times to the Podunk Times. So whether digging into a general database or the Web, hold onto your investigator’s hat.

First, look at the source and its reputation. Is the author trustworthy, perhaps with relevant credentials? (Look for a Bio or About tab. Contact information is a plus.) Is the organization well-known and reliable? Are sources identified? In other words, is it firsthand knowledge, or is the information attributed to a reliable source? Is the source listed on a bibliography? A print equivalent to an online source is a positive sign. For example, The Writer has a web presence and a physical copy. This increases the likelihood of gatekeepers – editors checking for accuracy and clarity, among other things. If the site’s reputation isn’t clear, verify the information through other good sources.

The website’s address or url offers important information. Most of us realize that .com’s are commercial and that their interest in selling might affect how and what they present. .Edu’s, or education-related sites, would seem to be reliable, but schools sometimes give website space to everyone associated with them. That means that professors can have websites discussing subjects other than their field of expertise (caution!), as might students. When I was researching for my Vanishing from… series on endangered animals, the editor asked for the wingspan of the Hawaiian crow. I hunted and hunted, only to find one lone article on the web with that information. Then I noticed “Mrs. Jones third grade class” tucked in the url. Tempted as I was, I couldn’t confirm the third grader’s data, so I had to let it go. Asking students to create websites to display their research seems to be a popular assignment; that does not mean the teacher has fact-checked and corrected it.

Next, who is the site’s intended audience? When writing for children, I sometimes like to see how other children’s authors handle similar material, but information should come from adult sources. This gives a fuller picture, and you can decide for yourself what to include. Also consider the site’s purpose. Selling isn’t the only concern. Sites with .org in the url often advocate a position. That’s fine, but remember the information probably only supports their side. Visit a reputable opposing site to round out your understanding. Be careful, too, that the site is not parody or satire – sometimes that tongue is parked deep in the cheek.

Timeliness is also important. What scientists believe today may not be borne out tomorrow. New discoveries change even a field as old as dinosaurs. Science or not, you don’t want your article or story upended by more current events. Determine if someone has updated the site recently and if links work.

Finally, consider the overall effect of the site. You know the importance of cleaning up a manuscript before submitting it. If the site is rife with errors or poorly designed, perhaps its creators were equally sloppy with the facts. Is the language abusive, morally objectionable, or overly emotional? Any of these flaws should make you steer clear.

The answer may not be affirmative to each question, but decide which issues are critical and make a judgment about the worth of a website. Not every reliable source offers a bibliography, for example. As you review scholarly sources, you’ll notice that the duller the presentation (that is, no pictures, ads, or flourishes), the more likely it is a serious site. But that’s no guarantee. A weekly news magazine is usually heavily illustrated – and hoping to sell subscriptions – but the information can be solid. And there’s always the proverbial underwear-clad guy in his basement cranking out worthless but dull-looking copy for a fee.

That brings up another issue. With all this concern about websites, books would seem to be safer. But publishing has become as easy as cutting a check to one of the myriad self-publishing houses. Learn the names of established publishers as well as those who publish for pay. Getting a self-published book into a library isn’t as easy, so pay heed to librarians’ discriminating tastes – and submit the book to your own critical appraisal as well.

After all, it’s your reputation on the line.

 

 

Gail Radley is the author of 24 books for young people and numerous articles for adults, including, most recently, “Word Thief” (The Writer Dec. 2016). Recently, she stepped away from teaching English full-time at Stetson University in order to devote more time to freelance writing and editing. She lives in DeLand, FL.

 

 

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