Alternative facts and the need for footnotes

We have entered the era of “alternative facts.” Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump, is the person Trump always wants speaking for him when the going gets tough. She was called to come to the rescue on the Sunday morning shows two days after the inauguration. The main question before her was to explain how Press Secretary Sean Spicer had told so many falsehoods in only two days.

On NBC’s Meet the Press, she was asked to explain:

(please excuse NBC’s self-promotion at the beginning of the clip)

MTP Moderator Chuck Todd did not let her off the hook, and ultimately Conway said that Spicer gave “alternative facts.”

Todd tried to pull a “gotcha” on Conway by saying that “Alternative facts are not facts.”

Much as I support Todd’s effort to get Conway to speak truth, I do not agree with his assertion that alternative facts are not facts. The problem with what both Todd and Conway said was that they mistook alternative facts for untrue facts. There are differences and here are some:

Suppose the question is what is the sum of two plus two. If someone says five, that is false. The correct answer is four. But an alternative fact could be that the answer is the square root of sixteen. That would be a different answer, but it would also be right.

Someone can be more creative with alternative facts. Suppose that someone said that Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey is not a progressive because he voted against permitting Americans to purchase drugs from Canada (obviously related to the huge contributions he gets from Big Pharma1). Someone else might say that he is indeed progressive because he received a 95% positive rating in 2015 from the liberal watchdog organization Americans for Democratic Action2.

Both facts about Booker are correct. They each describe something that Booker has done, but they paint different pictures of him. Neither of them is false.

There are two keys to accurate reporting.

  1. Make sure that the facts that you have are accurate.
  2. Put those facts in context. At times, that will mean including what the facts that you have stated do not tell you.

In the case of Cory Booker, it is up to the reader to determine for him or herself if he is progressive, or at least progressive enough to satisfy the reader.

Donald Trump’s latest flirtation with fantasy is his saying that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote because three to five million votes that she received were illegally cast. That is patently false.

It does not rise to the level of an alternative fact.

Trump, Spicer and Conway are causing the media to rethink standard reporting. Recently we have heard a number of mainstream outlets begin a report with, “President Donald Trump falsely reported ….” Such an opening was unthinkable, even as recently as six months ago. But times have changed.

It is often difficult for newspapers or electronic media to fully source their facts. One idea that has been presented for newspapers and magazines is to provide footnotes to their reporting. Yes, footnotes. In the printed version of their reporting, that might not be cost-effective as additional space means additional expenses. But on their electronic sites, it could easily be done.

Just to give a sense of what footnotes would look like in an article, I have footnoted below two of the assertions that I previously made about Senator Cory Booker. Feel free to let us know if you think that this method might “have legs.”

1 In 2014 when Booker successfully ran for the U.S. Senate from New Jersey, he received $388,678 from Pharmaceuticals/Health Products (Source: Open Secrets).

2 Reported by Americans for Democratic Action 2015 Congressional Voting Record