A slew of facts gets us almost as far from the truth as a slew of lies.
I doodled the image to the left on an article by Chip Scanlan, an authority on journalism and storytelling at Poynter. The article, from early in Scanlan’s career, is the heartwrenching retelling of a couple who almost loses their child during a complicated birth. In explaining what happened, Scanlan uses something of a narrative with the caveat that he did his research: he spent hours and hours gathering empirical information about the setting, and corroborated his sources painstakingly.
But as meticulous as Scanlan was, a narrative can’t be entirely factual and objective. He uses — and there are — a lot of writing devices that fall outside the realm of fact and objectivity: sarcasm, metaphor, beauty, hyperbole, humor. None of them are straightforward, yet they all still point to something true. Our social interactions are often surreptitious, so it’s no wonder that our writing is, too.
Logic is a wreath of pretty flowers that smell … bad.
In the spectrum of truthiness, the excessively factual is a less than ideal place to be.
Imagine someone asks you what the weather’s like in California. You can respond in a variety of ways.
Answer B: The climate of California is delightful. (Inspired by Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style)
(Answer C: It’s awful, dumbass.)
I’m not sure that the first is the best answer. It’s true, factual, but doesn’t really say anything that will help out the person who’s asking the question. What regions in California were these temps recorded? With what frequency? It’s not completely objective and unbiased either. What if the questioner wasn’t from the U.S. and measured temperature with some out-of-this-world scale, like Celsius … or … Kelvin? Who is to say that temperature is the best measure for weather anyway? Wouldn’t the best journalist provide the subtext for ALL of that? That would be ridiculous and possibly even more insulting than Answer C, depending on the context.
This list to left is cool, and it’s really pretty easy to understand, but any person or thing reading it would have to have some set of knowledge and understanding of its relevance in order to do anything with it.
Being logical is essential, but logic isn’t enough. Until it’s paired with value. That is, until a person is capable of creating meaningful and relevant connections with it.
If we can’t take each other at our word, all is lost.
If objectivity isn’t the standard by which we judge truth, what is? For journalists specifically: what obligations do we have if our obligations are not solely to facts?
I’m not certain that I’ve got the answer here. And that’s part of the problem. Pervasive among journalists who respect the truth is the fear of being wrong and the fear of the consequences of creating incorrect or harmful connections among facts. Sticking the facts is more secure, not to mention easier.
But I’m going to take a chance and guess that we can maintain integrity by making distinctions. If my ultimate goal as a writer is to reach understanding about the truth, my job stretches further than regurgitating facts. When it comes to producing content and spreading information, there is a necessity for a more complex way of creating understanding.
The great accomplishment that writers, or anyone in the business of understanding, can strive for is to match questions with answers. Luckily, there is infinite opportunity in this arena instead of hopelessness. The facts are out there in astonishing volume. It’s an information free-for-all, really. What becomes important is the authors who make connections between them. And we have an abundance of choices for creating subtext.
By entering into a conversation or by posing a query, individuals are signing a contract, agreeing on terms of understanding, trusting that all participants are on the same page or have the capacity to get there. I have made the assumption that anyone reading this blog speaks English, is probably an adult or something like it and knows something about me or what I’m writing about. It seems pretty pointless to begin conversing if we don’t have some pretenses about the conversation to begin with.
I can provide lots of context, just in this space, by linking, tagging, noting, heading, defining, interacting, widgeting, wiki-ing, slideshowing, voicing over, video-ing, all kinds of cool things. And I’m sure there are tons more ways of creating a more fluid context for my content to come. What’s important for me and anyone reading this to agree upon, then, is that without context, we just get to 42.
The obligation becomes defining the terms of the conversation through transparency and context.
So, sorry, Scanlan, you still don’t get a pass here — your touching story wasn’t journalism as we define it today. But maybe it was something better. You should have just said so.
For more, a tech-y (less fun) look at truth: Is there a single version of the truth?