In early January, one of my favorite radio programs, “This American Life,” aired its most popular episode to date. A first-person chronicle condemning Apple’s supply chain, the episode is anchored by Mike Daisey’s story of a 2010 visit to Chinese factories where many popular Apple products are made.
Daisey spoke with 12- and 13-year-old workers at Foxconn, an electronics company based in China that manufactures Apple products. He interviewed employees that had suffered poisoning and disfigurement, was intimidated by guards with guns and toured the workers’ prison-like living quarters. It was both eye-opening and shocking.
There was a hitch: Daisey made most of it up.
While a few of the facts checked out, Daisey was presenting his monologue as fact — as journalism.
“This American Life” immediately went into crisis-management mode, and has done an effective cleanup so far. First, they issued a retraction in a blog post, and then devoted an entire episode to distinguishing fact from fiction.
In one of several painfully awkward moments, Daisey is asked why he didn’t tell the whole truth when a producer for “This American Life” queried details in Daisey’s account. His response offers two important lessons: 1) always check your emotions and 2) always check your facts:
“I think I was terrified that if I untied these things, that the work, that I know is really good, and tells a story, that does these really great things for making people care, that it would come apart in a way where, where it would ruin everything.”
One of the dangers journalists and communicators for social change face when they become personally invested in a cause is the inability to think critically about their work. While it might be easy to tell a lie here and there for dramatic effect, it will undercut your goals.
In Daisey’s case, fighting for child labor laws and supply chain accountability are good and just causes. However, it became an emotional battle for him, and on-air he justified lying to make his point. Unfortunately, when you stretch the truth, you may take one step forward, but soon you’ll find yourself five giant steps back.
When you think critically, you’re also likely to be scrupulous with details. Sometimes you can’t stop determined Daiseys and Stephen Glasses from trying, but you can prevent their messages from reaching the public through careful editing and fact-checking.
The role of the editorial department cannot be stressed enough. Today, big impact stories like Daisey’s are so easy to share on social media that their reach has the potential to grow exponentially every hour, so any errors become all the more glaring and often undo all your hard work.
As newspaper subscriptions and advertising revenues plummet, it’s not surprising that many traditional media avenues are cutting corners when it comes to fact checking. In the PR industry, making the same mistake will end in embarrassment for your company and your clients.