Epistemology Rundown: Truth and Transparency at The New Modality


Truth and Transparency at The New Modality


Written by Lydia Laurenson

Last update: December 2023


Key Takeaway

We hope to get closer to truth, and to create transparency with our audience, by including "transparency notes" at the end of most pieces we publish.

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

Recent 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.

I've spent a couple of decades working, in various ways, as 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. In my twenties, one of my entry points into the media industry was as an independent pseudonymous blogger and activist. This category was, for years, wholly distrusted by the Media Establishment, because we weren't writing under our real names, and we built our own audiences rather than depending on an existing publication. This is more acceptable now, but it used to be seen as weird.

Later, in my thirties, I picked up professional experience in tech startups, 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, for instance, I published a couple of policy briefs about polarization, peacebuilding, and governance issues on digital media. In 2020, I started getting interested in questions of political partisanship and how that affects media bias. This has given me a perspective from which I disagree with journalism industry insiders as often as I agree.

Fact-checking is a good example of a process that is really helpful in some ways, but also very vulnerable to bias. Fact-checking often matters less than framing while a story is being told. A skilled writer can tell a story full of true facts that is obviously biased. 

There are also vulnerabilities in the process of fact-checking. 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. It's easy for a fact-checker to miss whether a fact needs to be checked, if they agree with the "fact" in question or consider it normal. Also, the process is often very tedious — it's rare that a fact-checker is looking into exciting falsehoods like a politician's lies — so it demands a lot of concentration. Fact-checkers 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.

So, I don't believe fact-checking is useless, but I understand why some people do. Aside from whether a fact-check happens on any given article, there are many other bits of framing and process that affect the truth of what gets produced, and almost none of these are documented for the reader. A surprising number of publications don't do any fact-checking, including some of the famous ones, and I can see why. 

I have spent non-trivial amounts of time fantasizing about the day we can afford proper fact-checking at The New Modality, but the type of facts that get checked during a fact-check are just part of the puzzle that comes together into the truth. 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 assumptions 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.