This Just In! When Semantics Matter

Before the news blogs begin in earnest I would like to share a philosophy I follow in my research and writing of history and in journalism.  It took me a few years to actually develop my approach and I believe that now I can stand by it and defend it with vigor.  It cuts to the heart of many stories we hear in the news and is reflected in social media discussions constantly.  It is important because it truly reflects on the mindset of the speaker and the veracity of their claims.  It has to do with:  The Truth.

Most people, when they are hearing the news or listening to a person discuss an issue or most other important conversations, say they want to hear the truth…and most pride themselves on telling it.  There is a problem with this thinking, however, when I compare it to my model for communicating:  Truth is not what it seems.  At least it is not what we want it to be.  Truths stem from a philosophical root, and they are often steeped in more emotion combined with belief.  Fact, on the other hand, is not.  They are not, as we have often been led to believe, the same thing at all.

Here is one of my favorite examples to explain this difference.

At a four-way intersection a two car collision takes place.  On each of the four corners are witnesses. Who, being upstanding citizens, do not mind getting involved; they stay and wait for the police to arrive.  When the traffic officer arrives, he speaks to each witness separately and asks them what they saw leading up to and at the time of the accident.  Not surprisingly, none of the stories are the same.  Point of view (which corner) skill at recalling details, eyesight, when they looked, even past experiences driving or in an accident all play into the story they tell.  Not one of them has lied.  They have told the officer the truth…their truth.

In order to get a better picture of the actual facts the officer collects evidence, measures tire marks, looks for signs of alcohol, past driving records, the actual position and damage on the two cars.  He uses science, like historians use evidence from archaeology and archives, to put together a more accurate composite picture of what really happened—the facts.  While there were many truths, there is always only one set of facts.  True, we may find what we thought were facts were false and thus adjust our view, but the set of facts for each situation still remains at a constant:  1

As a military historian I have read and heard many stories from combat—opposite sides of the same lines even, and the truths are wholly believed by the participants.  But they may not mesh perfectly with the facts.  It is understandable; when you are in a stressful situation your memory is taxed, fight or flight usually impairs the process.  Crashing your car and having an airbag explode in your face can do it too.  In the end, like the officer on the stand in court, I have to present the best set of FACTS I have and not truths.  Truths are closer to opinions sometimes, but facts exist in their own exquisite domain.

From me, as a reporter, as a historian, you will know that what I am presenting is not my truth, or anyone else’s (unless I clearly indicate I am quoting them) but the facts, just the facts.

By the way, Detective Joe Friday?  He never uttered those words in a single episode…and that is a fact.





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