Is Accuracy or Outcome More Valuable?

I’m fascinated by compelling stories. I love reading them, listening to them, and watching them on screens. I do not have the gift of natural storytellers, but I would like to spend my life learning the craft and finding ways to bring ideas together in new, truthful, and hopeful ways. In Nicaragua my main sources for stories are books and podcasts and lately two examples of effective stories have caught my attention. What they have in common is not only their power to persuade, but also their flaws.

The most recent of the stories is the one told in the Kony 2012 video that was released a few weeks back. It broke all records for the number of views in a short period of time, but within days it was sparking controversy as well. The criticisms were varied, but the central problem was the oversimplification that permeated the video. The narrative is a very simple ‘bad guy’ story about Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army(LRA). The organization Invisible Children produced the video in order to further the goal of capturing Kony and collect money to support their development projects in the area. The accusation made by its critics is that truth was a casualty of simplification. The video leads its viewers to believe that the LRA continues to be a terrorizing force in Uganda today when in reality they were expelled from the country in 2006 and have been reduced to scattered forces of less than 400 soldiers. The video also sidesteps issues related to Invisible Children’s tacit support and cooperation with a leader who has a patchy human rights record at best and who may even have worked in coordination with the LRA to bring aide to his country. From what I’ve seen it appears that Invisible Children is an organization focused on a very limited goal of bringing an end to the LRA and of focusing on a media campaign and political pressure to bring it about. People have been criticizing them for not being an effective development organization, but to me it seems like they don’t really claim to be. They have a very specific goal and they are working innovatively to achieve it. I’m not going to go further into this particular case because I want to examine one characteristic from two different examples: how the truth fares in the modern media environment.

The second example that has come up is the retracting of a popular This American Life story about Apple, inc. factories in China. Not just a popular show, the most downloaded show they have ever done(888,000 downloads). I heard the show when it was released in January and immediately posted it to my Facebook wall and recommended it to friends. Mike Daisey, a professional storyteller, has a show called ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs’ and TAL aired a segment from it. It tells the story of Mr. Daisey’s love affair with Apple products, then a doubt planted in his mind about how its products were produced, and finally his journey to Shenzhen to see the factories himself. It paints a disturbing picture of appalling working conditions, worker suicides, poisonous chemicals, and union busting. Recently, however, others have begun to question the veracity of some of his examples and a reporter for American Public Media found Mr. Daisey’s translator, who gave a very different account of their experiences. It appears that he did not meet the people that he said he met, nor did he see the things he said he saw. Mr. Daisey still says that he stands by his work, but that it should not have been portrayed as a journalistic account and that he regrets having presented it in that way on This American Life. Still, before the evidence was mustered against him, the public took notice. The New York Times did a feature article on the Human costs of the iPad (though this may have been unrelated to Mr. Daisey’s show). The company that produces Apple products in China raised its worker wages 25% and Apple seems to be focusing on repairing its image. The truth may not have been told, exactly, but the goal was reached. People listened, people spoke up, and the world changed, probably for the better.

Both stories share a common characteristic. Accuracy was not their primary concern. Attention was their primary concern, and they accomplished their goals by sacrificing some truth and accuracy to gain marketability. Compelling stories tend to be simple stories. All things being equal, a simple story is much more resonant and popular than a complex or nuanced story. This isn’t really a surprise to anyone. It’s easier to remember one or two ideas than five or six. We prefer things that have a clear message and give structure to a chaotic world. We tend not to like being left with doubts or uncertainties. Unfortunately I think what is being showcased in these examples is how wildly successful this sacrificing of truth can be for achieving other goals. That’s what every government in history has done during wartime, because stability and unity of purpose are the priorities. It’s what dictators have known, too. Propaganda works.

So to what extent is it justifiable to simplify or manipulate the truth if your cause is a virtuous one? In response to this people either claim the utilitarian argument(whatever benefits people most) or the slippery slope argument(if you lie a little bit there’s nothing morally stopping you from lying a lot). I think it’s a little of both, but I fall more on the slippery slope side of things. It is all too easy to convince ourselves that something that we want to do will benefit others, too. I believe that the means that we choose for achieving our ends affect the place where we end up. We should not torture people even to try to save lives because when we torture not only do we get bad information, we show that human rights are only applicable in some situations. We should not lie to try to do good because if the good is founded upon a lie it can be undone when the lie is exposed. The truth will out, so it will do more good in the long run to base our actions on accurate information, even if it is more difficult to achieve our aims.

This is all ignoring the broader, epistemological debate about ‘what is truth?’ I do not think that we can ever communicate a pure ‘truth’ because in order to communicate we are filtering our experience through language and the choices we make about what information to include and discard in the telling. However, just because pure truth cannot be achieved does not mean that the pursuit of truth is without value. On the contrary, it is the essence of what journalism, nonfiction storytelling, and communication about our world’s problems need.

Mike Daisy claims that he is a dramatist and artist rather than a reporter and that his stories should not be taken as the literal truth, but a truth that is more all-encompassing and nebulous. A search for a platonic ideal of truth. The creators of Kony 2012 are proud of their simplifications because of how successful it has allowed them to be. In the end, both stories are being challenged and the debates and discourses around them are valuable in and of themselves, so perhaps in that way they are positive. They have, after all, served as fuel for this blog post and many like it. They raise awareness of some of the risks of storytelling in a global and digital world where fact-checking is easier but not costless and a well-told story can be amplified exponentially, reaching millions of people.

I think the lessons we can take away from these examples are to find ways to weave our stories with multiple perspectives where possible, link to primary sources for those who want to look deeper, be more transparent about intentions and biases, and, above all, pursue the truth first and personal motives second.

7/26/12 p.s. Here’s a startling quote that illustrates the cognitive basis for our tendency to simplify stories(System 1 is our intuitive, unconscious, emotional system. System 2 is our explicit, conscious, logical system):

“It[system 1] tells a story even when there is little information. Furthermore, the confidence we have in that story, those stories, is determined by how coherent they are, by how much sense you can make of the information and the conclusion. If it’s a coherent story, we believe it. If we have difficulty generating a story, we doubt. System 1 generates, produces, the most coherent story possible. The result is massive overconfidence. Why? Because we are really good storytellers. We tell ourselves stories when/with very little information and if the stories are good we believe them. System 2 believes them. And the result is that System 2 has much greater belief in, you know,” its opinions, its beliefs, the correctness of its decisions than it really should have, and that is because of the way that System 1 works.”

Daniel Kahneman on The Machinery of the Mind, Big Ideas Podcast March 31, 2012

Here’s another video that explores our ‘single stories:’


3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Allie on March 22, 2012 at 12:09 pm

    This post was really well written and I enjoyed reading it. You have a clear and thoughtful way with words and, while I have nothing to contribute to your discussion of truth or the media at the moment, I wanted to let you know that I think it’s a great issue to discuss. Hope things are well!


  2. Posted by Kathy Haskin on March 23, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    Okay, Andrew,

    If you haven’t already thought of this as a goal, I really think you could be a great college professor. Imagine the effect of this lecture and the following discussion on young (or older) college students! Great food for thought. Kathy


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