Truth, facts, science, and getting through to people: The Mike Daisey/This American Life Scandal from a non-journalist’s perspective

A segment on This American Life which focused on the terrible working conditions for employees of Foxconn, a Chinese company where many Apple products are manufactured has become the subject of controversy.  The problem?  Mike Daisey, who was the main “voice” you heard talking in the segment, claimed to personally witness many of the things in the story — but he didn’t.  It appears that many of the things he talked about in the story are true, but he gave the impression that he was there when he wasn’t. 

After reading Jay Rosen’s take on Daisey, “Master Manipulator with Nerves of Steel,” I tuned out the rest of the back and forth around this, in part because I found the conversation, well, kinda predictable. 

But I was surprised and pleased to see Emily Nagoski comment on the controversy surrounding Mike Daisey’s piece on This American Life.  Emily is a professor at Smith College, where she teaches courses on human sexuality.  Her blog is wonderfully informative and funny, and I think it’s great when we have the opportunity to get perspectives from smart people who are not part of the journalism tribe.  Emily comes at this from the point of view of a scientist and an educator.   Her take

Journalism is about facts. Art is about truth. I think the opposite of facts is lies. I think the opposite of truth is ignorance.

Her perspective is shaped by something I’ve experienced personally, something I think we all know happens routinely — namely, that reporters go out with an “angle” and ask sources questions that confirm that storyline.  When I’m interviewed, I often get the sense that the story is already written in the reporter’s head, and that I’m just being used as color #72 in their paint-by-numbers picture.  No new information is required or wanted. That’s a problem when the “big picture” they have in mind doesn’t actually represent the truth:

The journalists I talk to tend to have a story in mind and they’re looking for facts that substantiate that story. And we all know by now that confirmation bias means that they’ll just ignore anything I tell them that doesn’t fit into their story.

Emily comes down on the side of storytelling in the debate, and I’d hate to see storytelling as a truth-vehicle go by the wayside.  However, I think we need do need to tell people when storytelling is at work.  One sentence that would have saved tons of trouble: “Hey, I perform this as a stage monologue —  and when I do that, I take the perspectives of many people and compile them into a single point of view.”  Emily does the same thing in her classroom when she says, “It’s much more complicated than that” after telegraphing a complicated piece of knowledge.

This reminds me of one of the five Data Journalism Haiku, which talks about estimating vs. counting:

Do not guess; count things. 
And when you cannot count them, 
say you are guessing. 

PS: Her blog entry also contains some prime Matt Thompson bait.  Matt wrote a wonderful piece entitled “What Journalists Can Learn from the Scientific Method,” and Emily gets at one way in which journalism and science are very different — science has no deadlines.  Science is on truth’s timeline, which is, in general, a lot slower than CNN’s:

Of all disciplines, I think only science captures both facts and the truth, and science is incredibly slow and deep, the way evolution is slow and deep or the way plate tectonics are slow and deep.

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About Me

Lisa Williams

Founder of | Winner of Knight News Challenge | Center for Civic Media, MIT Media Lab | Cambridge, MA | @lisawilliams on Twitter | lisawilliams on Github