Editorial: How a fact becomes fabrication
We hope you didn't get a lump of coal in your Christmas stocking. If you did, it perhaps had a subtext that went beyond Santa's views on your behavior.
The natural resource and the industry that mines it have become one of many focal points in today's overactive spin cycle, where a grain of truth gets coated with layers of innuendo, opinion, extrapolation and exaggeration that can turn its meaning into fabrication.
That process is nothing new.
Whole industries have long been built around creating a story or an impression favorable to the brand in question. Take Ivory soap, which floats -- an attribute long proffered as the result of a happy accident discovered when an employee left a mixing machine on while he went to lunch. The less colorful truth is that the founder's son changed the recipe to make the soap float, says Snopes.com, citing a Procter & Gamble archivist.
Most people understand the role of marketing. But in today's shrill climate, the amped-up skill of distortion and fakery has vastly increased in scope and has spread widely in political and social arenas where it's much harder to discern. No single vantage point has a monopoly on the tactic, which might be meant to sell you something, sway or affirm your political or world view or even just introduce confusion.
Which brings us back to coal.
Whether the industry is growing or shrinking plays into many political hands these days. Hyperbolic headlines declaring one conclusion or the other race around the world, shared on social media and on websites with names that resemble journalistic websites. The Guardian dug into the discrepancy and found a nuanced answer -- more coal-fired capacity is being built than closed down each year worldwide. But the amount of electricity produced by burning coal is falling steadily.
That points to one tip-off that you're being subjected to spin. Subtlety rarely factors into distortions masquerading as news. Wholly one-sided headlines should raise suspicion, as should websites that espouse only one point of view but attempt to pose as an impartial source.
It makes a little fib about floating soap seem quaint.
As a news organization, our reporters and editors work mightily to sort through spin by seeking out multiple sources, verifying information and tracing it back to its original source, soliciting comment from knowledgeable people representing all points of view and acknowledging discrepancies or holes in the data. News consumers play their part by demanding transparency and recognizing that they might be most in danger of accepting distorted misinformation when it bolsters their own point of view.
Is it factual? And do the facts presented (as well as those not presented) support the conclusion? The questions today seem way harder than back when P.T. Barnum did or did not talk about "a sucker born every minute."
Yet, it's more critical than ever that the truth comes out. We promise to stick to that mission. We hope you will, too.
Facts matter. Support a free press.