Anatomy of a Fact: When Facts Impose Bias

Anatomy of a Fact is a recurring series exposing how the Pacific Standard research and fact-checking process works.
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Abkhazia.

Abkhazia.

Most of the time, facts themselves do not carry bias. The interpretation of one, or the choice to include one at the expense of another, might, but it's usually treated as a given that a statement itself either corresponds with reality or it doesn't, and that there's no gray area in that distinction. For example, if 51 percent of people in a place oppose statehood, it is rather clear statehood is not popular among a majority. If five of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council oppose a body's claim to sovereignty, that body is definitionally not a country under international law.

And yet, the idea that facts are always impartial—that they are distinct from opinion, per the old expression—is not itself true. In checking Laura Kasinof's "Welcome to the Almost-Country of Abkhazia," our editorial team was forced to make a choice between facts that were necessarily political: Abkhazians call their capital city Sokhum, while Georgians, who Abkhazians argue independence from, call it Sokhumi. Both spellings are correct factually: a name, after all, is just what people choose to call something. To use one spelling in the story and not the other, however, was to make an explicitly political statement on the status of Abkhazia's nationhood. To spell it Sokhum would implicitly recognize Abkhazia's sovereign claim, while to spell it Sokhumi would reject it. Each fact imposed a bias.

We ultimately determined the best journalistic practice to be deferring to international convention—referring to the city as "Sokhumi" as the U.N. Geospatial Information Section does—while elucidating the existence of the naming dispute in the text. Our logic was that, while either choice was political, breaking from status quo was a bigger breach of journalistic neutrality. Nonetheless, we drew explicit attention to the naming dispute in the article, to make clear that we were not outright dismissing the legitimacy of Abkahzians' claims to sovereignty.

Anatomy of a Fact is a recurring series exposing how the Pacific Standard research and fact-checking process works.

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