"When you assume, you make an 'ass' out of 'u' and 'me'." — Felix Unger, The Odd Couple
Remember back in February when I wondered whether I was psychic? Well, here’s exhibit #9,437:
Yesterday I was thinking about fact-checking and fair reporting with regard to a particular developing story — even texted a friend about it — and then, boom, I was contacted by a fact-checker about an entirely different developing story.
I was so glad the fact-checker reached out to me because, OMG, did the writer have so much wrong. They had made all kinds of mistaken inferences based on things I’d posted on social media, a photograph I’d appeared in with the subject of the story, vague comments I’d made to loose acquaintances in person, and things others had said about me based on their own wrong assumptions. I was grateful for the opportunity to set the record straight, and also to comment myself. And relieved. Whew.
With so much posturing on social media, and the emotionally ambiguous nature of texting and email, it’s easier than ever to draw our own misguided conclusions about people, their attitudes, their associations, their economic status, etc.
I am not immune to these kinds of errors; I recently tweeted my own wrong assumption about someone based on a misreading of something they’d tweeted. I apologized and posted a number of corrections, and ultimately life goes on. As the old Jewish bookkeeper at my late grandfather’s apparel business used to say, “That’s why pencils have erasers.” But I still regret the error, and it could have been avoided if I’d simply fact-checked beforehand.
Sadly, these days most publications forego hiring professional fact-checkers. Many that used to have let them go.
In the absence of professional fact-checkers, as writers we have to interrogate our own assumptions about people and do the awkward but important work of asking those we write about to verify what we assume to be facts, and to provide their own clear insight into their thinking and intentions.
It’s not fun, especially when it blows holes in your entire thesis. But getting it wrong and correcting it later is even less fun, for everyone involved. Take it from me.