Editor’s Notes: Facts matter (opinion)
December 12, 2017
Writing a headline as obvious as "facts matter" does, at first, feel a bit foolish. "Murder is evil" and "Fire is hot" could be contenders on the common sense meter.
But while most of us (one hopes) will not take another's life or stick an appendage into flames, the tendency to abandon facts is unfortunately human nature.
The proverbial "white lie" is one example. Brazen ignorance is another.
On the topic of falsehoods, it would be easy to point to the Trump administration, which has obliterated the bar for untruthfulness in our nation's capital — a city characterized as slimy and manipulative when it comes to facts and the truth (the swamp?).
While the White House is an extreme example (extreme in the sense that it frequently appears to be detached from reality), we do not need to look all the way to D.C. to find a lack of facts in our dialogue. Falsehoods have a way of reaching us here at the Tribune in emails, comments and other forms of communication, sometimes in response to work we've produced.
They also frequently appear on social media, where disinformation can spread like wildfire.
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Of course, our jobs would be much easier if we didn't have to combat falsehoods and lies. But that simply is not reality. As such, we are taking several steps toward keeping the record straight.
The first is a new fact-checking feature we're calling Truth Tahoe. Like other fact-checking endeavors, the core mission is to evaluate whether or not a claim/statement is true.
A recent example (and the inspiration for making this a recurring feature) came several weeks ago when Tribune News Editor Claire Cudahy wrote a story about the South Lake Tahoe city manager's salary. The story was in response to repeated claims online that the city manager makes more than the governor of California.
We set out to first learn if this was true and, if so, was it unusual. The latter point is important because without it you have an incomplete story. "Yes" or "no" doesn't cut it — we all need some degree of context.
Truth Tahoe will delve into the complexities of the questions it seeks to answer. We will not have a set frequency for Truth Tahoe — it will appear as needed.
If you have a suggestion or idea for us to investigate, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The other new announcement is more of a policy change. Starting today we will now require sourcing for claims of fact in our opinion submissions.
Earlier I talked about the places we see and hear falsehoods. One arena I didn't mention is the opinion pieces that we receive. Fairly frequently people send us letters to the editor that include statements of fact, in addition to the writer's opinion.
"Our City Council is overpaid." This is an opinion and perfectly acceptable.
"Our City Council makes hundreds of thousands of dollars every year." This is a statement of fact, one that is demonstrably false.
To clarify, this is not a crackdown on opinions. We welcome diverse views and positions on any number of issues. However, writing an opinion piece is not a free pass to state falsehoods — likely out of laziness, rather than out of deceit.
To some degree, this is not that great a change. I have made it a point to check statements of facts in our opinion submissions.
Particularly around election time, we received quite a few letters that cited numbers, typically figures pertaining to money. It often turned out that these numbers were different than the actual numbers publicly available.
In a couple instances, numbers were off by more than $1 million — which we in the newspaper business call "a big freaking deal."
Another recent example came in the form of a letter in response to a feature we ran on the Northern California wildfires. In it, the letter writer mentioned how an "illegal alien" had started the fires. This is patently false — a falsehood run amuck after a person in the U.S. illegally started a small fire that was quickly extinguished in the same county as one of the much larger, deadly blazes.
Initially, I addressed the issue the same way I address all questionable claims: I wrote an email asking where the letter writer obtained that information. His response was similar to those from the letter writers who had used incorrect numbers: memory.
In fairness, the "illegal alien" falsehood initially took off, especially online, so much so that large media outlets had to write stories clarifying that the "illegal alien" allegation wasn't true.
All these recent examples get to a core point: Our memories are not always as great as we'd like to think. And in comes cases where they are, we're remembering information that was never true to begin with.
The big difference in our new policy is that you, the letter and column author, are now responsible for proving that you're accurate.
I realize some people will not read this and be unaware of our new policy. Others will ignore it. Both cases are fine, but when you receive a response asking "where did you get X, Y or Z" you better have a response other than "I remember it."
Because in this business, truth is our currency and memory can be a shady lender.
Ryan Hoffman is editor of the Tahoe Daily Tribune. He can be reached at 530-542-8006 or at email@example.com.