In the days & weeks after my TED talk, the majority of the questions I got corresponded to the closing statement. It dealt with the nature of truth, which is what journalists should aspire to serve. At our best, we are servants of the truth, we are seekers of the truth. It should be all about the truth.
Here’s the closing statement:
“Truth is never binary. Truth is a value. Truth is emotional, it’s fluid, and above all, it’s human. No matter how quick we get with computers, no matter how much information we have, you’ll never be able to remove the human from the truth-seeking exercise”
That’s proved to be quite an explosive assertion. The comments on the TED and YouTube versions of the video are full of people angry that I ended a talk about online fact-checking with a something so apparently wishy-washy. They have a point.
It depends, I guess, on whether you differentiate between truth as a state and truth as a noun. A singular ‘truth’ is an empirical fact or set of facts, but ‘the truth’ is something else. The truth is often a triangulation of subjective views, each of which may be true to the beholder. Truth is a slippery concept, after all, and there are many variations on the word ‘true’.
A bicycle wheel-builder makes a buckled wheel true by tightening spokes: when the pull from both sides is evenly spread, the wheel is straight and ‘true’ again. Truth, in a bicycle wheel, is about a balance of forces.
We are often told to be true to our selves, which, in essence, means to be true to our values. Values and the concept of ‘self’ are intangible things, subjective constructs, figments of the mind, and so being true to those is doubly subjective.
Truth is best seen as something of which facts are a large subset – fact loaded with moral meaning. Truth and facts are not the same, but are intrinsically linked. This is important for journalists to understand – that facts can be empirical, beyond question, but the truth, as perceived by those involved (stakeholders, in business-speak) can be something entirely different. If you accept the difference, you’ll begin looking at facts from all perspectives, and obtain a much greater understanding of any situation.
All the techniques I outlined in the TED talk, performed by the Storyful team in the course of their daily work, are a process of uncovering the truth. We try every day to get quicker at finding & triangulating the facts so that, collectively, we bring our clients (news organisations) and the partners we interact with (citizen journalists, NGOs, activists and others) together to collaborate on a shared version of the truth. We look for the facts because they are the unshakable core of journalism. They’re the kingmakers, the reason why we love the work of Nate Silver, and Storyful’s own Gavin Sheridan.
As an industry, we tend to focus on the tools, the medium and the cold hard facts in journalism. We are obsessed with technique, we drool over technology, we are constantly on watch for innovation, aesthetic nuance and the elusive ‘scoop’.
The end statement of my TED talk was about getting away from that – standing back from the tools and looking at what we’re trying to achieve. The world is interpreted by imperfect humans with eyes on the front of their heads. Our perspective is always limited, and we have to rely on the perspectives of others to build up any picture fully. It’s no harm, every now and then, to refocus back to the most important element of journalism – the people it serves and examines.
And that’s the truth.