Epistemology Rundown: Truth and Transparency at The New Modality


Truth and Transparency at The New Modality


Written by Lydia Laurenson

Last update: October 2019


Key Takeaway

Truth can be hard to define. Yet we hope to get closer to truth, and to create transparency with our audience, by including "transparency notes" at the end of every piece that runs in The New Modality.

How (and Why) We're Pondering The Nature of Truth

The last few years have seen a shift in how many people, especially in the United States, think about truth and honesty in the media. To describe how we plan to approach this at The New Modality, I'll talk about my perspective on this topic at a meta level, then get into specifics about what we'll do.

The Current Conversation About Truth in Journalism and Media Studies

Lately, the US has been having quite a conversation about "fake news," which has led to quite a conversation in the journalism industry.

I've been watching this conversation with interest, for many reasons. One, of course, is that I'm a writer and editor and media strategist. I've worked at journalism companies and my writing has been published in many reputable publications. Yet depending on who you talk to, I may or may not be legit. My entry point into the media industry was as an independent pseudonymous blogger and activist — a category that, for a while, was wholly distrusted by the Media Establishment. This gave me a perspective from which I disagree with journalism industry insiders as often as I agree with them.

Later, I picked up professional experience in social media startupland, and in recent years I've participated in many fascinating conversations about how the current global Internet governance battle will turn out. In early 2019, I published a couple of policy briefs about polarization, peacebuilding, and governance issues on digital media. Those briefs are from a general perspective, not just a journalistic one; I've also tracked the year's developments within the journalism industry, like when the Knight Foundation created its commission to analyze (and, they hope, restore) trust in the media — and when trade publications like Harvard's Nieman Lab started publishing articles suggesting fact-checking is useless because people are too partisan to make fact-based decisions.

Among all these perspectives, one piece that stood out for its brilliance was written by danah boyd (her name is lowercase on purpose), founder of the New York-based nonprofit research institute Data & Society. The piece was published in 2018 under the title "You Think You Want Media Literacy… Do You?"

That analysis is worth reading in its entirety. It engages deeply with epistemology — the study of knowledge, the theory of how we know things. One of my favorite parts of danah's article is when she acknowledges that there are different epistemologies informing the conversation about what is "real" news and what is "fake." An activist who operates from their personal experience, and the experiences creating the collective narrative in their community, is literally operating from a different way of knowing when compared to a scientist operating from the scientific method.

This doesn't make fact-checking useless, but it's worth considering the epistemology a person is operating from when they do the fact-check — not to mention the epistemology a writer or source is operating from, and so on. 

Nice Rant Lydia, But What Does This Have To Do With Your Process At This One Publication?

As someone who came to the world of journalism from a different type of training and background, who also has a history in activism (and more recently in spirituality), this made me think a lot about our process around truth when starting The New Modality. We plan to cover a lot of the usual topics, but we'll also include things like personal spiritual experience, which can get real dicey when we start talking about whether it's "true."

When publications do it, fact-checking normally takes place on the micro level. The typical fact-check involves someone identifying and then following up on every single "fact" within an article: anything from whether a book was really published on the date cited, to whether a source was in the place they said they were. This process is often very tedious — it's rare that a fact-checker is looking into exciting falsehoods like a politician's lies. They are more likely to be double-checking whether a source was really drinking a pink cocktail at the time of day that they remember drinking the pink cocktail. If you're curious about what the process looks like, the New Yorker published a cute piece in 2018 showing an hour in the life of a real live fact-checker.

I don't believe fact-checking is useless, but I understand why some people do. Even aside from whether a fact-check happens on any given article, there are other bits of process that affect the truth of what gets produced, almost none of which are documented for the reader. (Also, fact-checking is expensive and time-consuming. Once I learned just how expensive and time-consuming, I started to guiltily wonder how much we actually want to do it!) A surprising number of publications don't do any fact-checking, including some of the famous ones, and I can see why. 

I very literally have spent non-trivial amounts of time fantasizing about the day we can afford proper fact-checking at The New Modality (hint: not today!), but the type of facts that get checked during a fact-check are just part of the puzzle that comes together into the truth. For example, what experiences did the author bring to producing a given article? Who edited it? And — if we can manage to suss them out, which can be hard — what epistemologies were the people who created the article operating from?

Practically speaking, I'm gonna try approaching these lofty philosophical questions by transparently documenting lots of different elements of our process. While I worry that for many readers this will seem unnecessary and quixotic ("why do all these articles have weird end notes with boring specifics about how quotes were checked?"), I hope the exercise will get us all closer to truth.

So when you see those weird end notes at the end of our articles, now you'll know exactly how much overthinking went into them :). Feel free to ask us about our process in as much detail as you want, anytime: we're on Twitter @NewModality.