Where is the line between facts and truth?

By Chris Mackowski

Photo by Sydney Best

If anyone still doubts we live in a post-truth society, take a look at these two articles published on October 18.

A U.S. State Department investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state has found no evidence of deliberate mishandling of classified information by department employees.

A State Department report into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server for government business, obtained by Fox News on Friday, found dozens of individuals at fault and hundreds of security violations.

The first comes from Reuters News Service and the second from Fox News. Both report on the same incident, but look at the emphasis of each story. According to one story, the State Department report “found no evidence of deliberate mishandling of classified information by department employees” while the other says the report “found dozens of individuals at fault and hundreds of security violations.

So who’s right?

At first glance, the stories seem contradictory, but if you read each one, and you parse the words in each of those leads, you’ll see that both are accurate, despite the wildly different takes on each story. Apparently, there were hundreds of violations by dozens of individuals, but none of them were deliberate.

Yet the Reuters story emphasizes “deliberate mishandling.” The Fox story emphasizes “fault.” Reuters says “no,” while Fox says “hundreds” and “dozens.” One story suggests ineptitude; the other suggests malfeasance.

The emphasis of each story primes a reader to understand the story in a particular way.

In the field of history, we call this “interpretation.” Historian create a structure to help readers find meaning from a particular set of facts.

For instance, you can’t tell the entire story of the battle of Fredericksburg in a single 35-minue tour, my friend and mentor, Greg Mertz, once told me. So, how can you boil that story down enough so you can tell it in a limited span of time—for a group of battlefield tourists, for instance, who might have only the most rudimentary grasp of the Civil War (let alone the battle)?

Storytellers of all types, even journalists, employ this same approach. The inverted pyramid of journalism, for instance, is a particular kind of structure that organizes information in a particular way so readers can make sense of it. The basic structure of a freshman composition paper—intro, body, conclusion, featuring a thesis statement in the intro and supporting evidence in the body—is another.

Writer Shelby Foote, best known for his trilogy The Civil War: A Narrative, said that imposing order on facts allows a reader to get at the larger concept known as truth. Equating truth and facts, though, was an “enormous mistake,” he once explained to an interviewer. “Truth is the breath of life breathed into facts. It is not the facts,” he explained. “You can’t get the truth from facts. The truth is the way you feel about it.”

In other words, facts may be objective, but truth is not.

“Truth was subjective and morally based,” historian Joan Waugh explained in an essay, “Ulysses S. Grant, Historian,” about Grant’s post-Civil War attempts to chronicle the war. “Truth had a higher meaning. Truth was based in the facts but ultimately not answerable to them. Today, professional historians call truth ‘Interpretation.’”

Interpretation allows audiences to make sense of confusing, complicated facts. But it does require the interpreter—the historian, the reporter, the freshman composition student—to develop a theme or an angle as an organizing principle, which they use to tell a particular story, because even the most straightforward set of facts don’t tell themselves.

“Order, unity, and continuity are all human inventions,” philosopher Bertrand Russell once observed. I see in that comment a warning. As anyone imposes order, unity, and continuity on facts, they begin to make choices about what to include and what to exclude, what to emphasize and what to downplay. These choices reflect a writer’s priorities, values, and sensibilities—in other words, a writer’s biases.

That brings us back to our two news examples. Why does one story emphasize one angle while the other emphasizes a seemingly opposite angle?

How do these stories line up with the editorial slants of their respective outlets?

What are the biases at play?

Where is the line between facts and truth in these stories—and where should that line be?

Truth is “the way you feel” about facts, Foote said. The inherent problem therein is that feelings can get in the way. Feelings cloud facts, and judgement becomes more important than understanding.

To really understand the battle of Fredericksburg, a visitor can’t rely on a single tour from a single tour guide—that’s just one person’s interpretation. The visitor has to go on many tours with many different guides. Some guides he’ll like and others he won’t. Some stories he’ll like and others he won’t. But that’s the only way for the full story to come out. And if the visitor really wants to know more, he won’t be able to rely just on tours: he’ll have to invest the time to read a book (or more than one).

Consuming the news is the same way. One channel will give us one interpretation. Only by breaking out of our comfort zones and seeking out multiple sources of information can we start to see past all the competing truths of this post-truth world. That’s the best way to sort through all the interpretations and begin to see the facts for ourselves—and in doing so, we can start to find our own truth.

Chris Mackowski is a professor of journalism and mass communication at St. Bonaventure University’s Jandoli School of Communication, where he serves as associate dean of undergraduate programs. He is also the editor-in-chief of Emerging Civil War (www.emergingcivilwar.com) and the author of more than a dozen books about the Civil War.

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