Getting to the facts: How do we know what to believe?

A respected acquaintance recently expressed a startling opinion: “Real journalism is dead.”

“It is?” I replied.

And his rationale followed: “How do I know the facts the journalists are reporting are actually true and not just used to support their opinions?”

Ah, a critical question for the information age.

Journalists, like everyone else, are constantly faced with dubious “facts” from their sources. And because everyone and their mother produces “facts” these days, the time and resources required to double-check those facts have become increasingly scarce.

So, is it the reporter’s or the source’s “facts” that are in question?

Last month, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, and the World Health Organization — two credible sources — each released a report on the number of malaria deaths for the year 2010. The IMHE research showed 1.2 million people died, while the WHO reported about half that number. Which source’s “facts” are correct?

Journalists often run into impenetrable walls when questioning and verifying sources. There are proprietary and trade-secret protections on the corporate side and classified barriers and complex data trails on the local, state and federal government side, despite the Freedom of Information Act.

Giant pharmaceutical firms, for example, present some of the most difficult challenges for journalists investigating a story. Their financial power and influence are mind-boggling. Try researching, investigating and reporting on FDA-approved pharmaceutical clinical trials!

There are 122,567 FDA-tracked clinical trials in 179 nations detailed in the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s database. By the way, more than 5,000 of them include medical facilities and their patients in Colorado.

In some cases, patients aren’t aware that they are part of a clinical trial. While there are laws against that, there are exceptions due to an exclusion (21 CFR 50.24, issued by the Food and Drug Administration in 1996) to the voluntary consent requirement as detailed in the Nuremburg Code. The first tenet of the code’s ethical guidelines for human experimentation, put in place after World War II, states “the voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential.”

Despite the 1996 exception, pharmaceutical companies have found an even easier way around that voluntary consent requirement: They conduct a number of investigational new drug and device exemption clinical trials outside the United States.

Last year, after administering the meningitis drug Trovan to children in Nigeria as part of a clinical trial, Pfizer paid out $75 million in claims to outraged families who insisted they were not told the drugs were experimental. Many children died or were injured. Some of those “facts” are well documented and easy to find if you know how, when and where to look.

The federal government’s site is jam-packed full of “facts” that can have different relevance for different people — even if we choose whether to question the methodologies and potential biases behind those facts.

Earlier this month, our nation’s chief information officer, Steven VanRoekel, told a group of Harvard law students his office plans to take much of the government-gathered data and make it more relevant to “the average citizen.” Isn’t that the job of publishers and journalists?

“We have to get out of the data business and into the platform business,” he told the group.

Sound familiar? Remember the former Soviet Union’s state-run news agency, Pravda, which translates from Russian as “truth”?

So, how do any of us know whether the “facts” we’re presented, along with their gathering methodologies, are real and unbiased? Do we trust news and information generated by government — whether local, state or federal — are guaranteed to be accurate? Are claims by pharmaceutical and other companies above reproach simply because of their power, wealth and influence? (He who has the gold makes the rules.)

Taking a solitary fact out of context to craft a biased story, to build some new law or regulation, or to bully those who see the world differently (as some pundits, politicians and lobbyists are prone to do) bears similarities to religious zealots throughout world history who lift a piece of scripture out of its original context and use that “fact” to diminish, manipulate and punish people in the name of God.

Journalists, like everyone else, view “facts,” in and out of context, through the lens of their own life experiences, education and environment. Should we professional and citizen journalists constantly strive for “fair-and-balanced” in our research and reporting? Absolutely. Unfortunately, not all do.

But I’ll take that option — with its imperfections, strained budgets, deadlines and space limitations — over corporate and government “because-we-said-so” sources any day.

Krystyn Hartman, a recovering journalist, can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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