The gossamer wisdom of ‘they’

How can I tell if you’re spreading fake news about Covid-19?

Simple. I ask you one question: Have you ever commented about Covid-19 using the phrase ‘They say that…’? If you have, then, sorry, but you’re probably guilty.

If someone comments with some measure of authority on something using the phrase ‘They say that…’, and I’m within earshot, my reaction is to ask, “Sorry, who are ‘they’?”. It irritates my wife, who I suspect continues to use the phrase simply to return the favour.

There’s a reason for my pernickety inquisition: In journalism, significant value is placed on the credibility of the source of any story or comment within a story. It’s why journalists are very protective of their sources.

If, say, a story breaks about some cutting-edge research, and I have the lead researcher on speed dial, I’m of significant value. Reason: the lead researcher is a credible source with respect to the story. They have the authority to comment. I can quote them: “Professor Fred Dlamini, Director of UCT’s Skin Disease Research Centre, says that nose-scratching in mice may increase the risk of them developing dandruff”; and the story will have credibility. 

On the other hand, someone working in the university cafeteria is not a credible source (unless I want a comment on Professor Dlamini’s beverage preferences).

Furthermore, if I were to write the story, and my name is in the by-line (as in ‘this story is written by…’) and I quote Professor Dlamini, then you have the ability to not only identify who commented in the story, but also track who is responsible for the accurate coverage of that story. 

Then, if you were to comment on this story, you could say, “Daryl Ilbury chatted with Professor Fred Dlamini, who says that scratching your nose may give you dandruff”. It’s not entirely correct, but, importantly, the person listening could then verify it. They could find the story online, and click on the link I’d provide to dig deeper into the original research.

But what if someone were to say, “They say picking your nose gives you cancer”. How can it be verified? Who reported it? Who are ‘they’? 

If you’re going to be part of the media with a story and share your newfound ‘wisdom’, your first reaction should be the ‘ABC of journalism’: Accept nothing, Believe no-one, Check everything.

Unless, of course, your priority is simply to make people raise their eyebrows and go, “Really?”.

But you should be better than that. If you want people to know your wisdom has depth and substance, stick to giving them the facts, and support the facts with the details, and the sources of your wisdom.

Because if you don’t, you’re spreading fake news.