Sources Go With Facts
Pakistan Independence -- 1947
Edmund Hillary Reaches Summit
If I know something to be a fact, that's good enough for me.
Nevertheless, you can't just state a fact without fear of contradiction.
Often, when I state what to me is a fact, someone always wants to know: Where did you hear that?
Unfortunately, even though I'm sure I'm correct, that's not good enough for someone else!
How Do You Know?
If I tell someone that Columbus discovered America in 1492, and someone asks, "How do you know?," I'm stumped!
I'm sure one of my early teachers told me about Columbus -- or I read about his exploits in my history book in second or third grade in school. But I can't cite chapter and verse; all I can say is, "I'm sure I'm correct, but I can't tell you how I know it."
From time to time, The Hour (newspaper) runs a column called "Today in History" that features a variety of facts relating to a specific date in history. On Aug. 14, for instance, the column said that Pakistan became independent of British rule in 1947. As in all of the column's pronouncements, no attribution is given.
Thus, if someone asks me when Pakistan became independent of British rule, I can confidently declare, "On Aug. 14, 1947."
'I Read It In Today in History'
But, if you ask me the source of this great knowledge, I'm at a loss to give you an answer -- other than to say, "I read it in Today in History." Obviously, that will hardly do!
It so happens that I have a large reservoir of trivia for which I have no adequate source. In the event someone should question my source when I disclose any of this invaluable information, and insofar as I am unable to specify a reliable source, I plan to put the questioner on the defensive by declaring, confidently, "I read it in Today in History" -- even if that isn't true!
If the ploy doesn't work, so what?
It isn't always convenient to track down the source of a fact. For instance, I'll take Today in History and The Associated Press at their word about Pakistan. I really don't have the time and energy it would take to verify the date that Pakistan became independent just to satisfy some unknown, faceless, future questioner.
But the whole episode has given me a new appreciation of bare facts.
When Is a Fact a Bona Fide Fact?
Is a fact a fact just because I know it to be a fact? Or must I be able to certify it as a fact by citing someone other than myself as a source before it becomes a bona fide fact? To me, it's a fact, but I can't speak for you.
I'm not entirely anti-social so I have vowed to myself to make a new effort to learn the source of any "fact" I may stumble upon. Of course, there's no guarantee I can do it, but I'll try. If I fail, of course, I can always use the Today in History ruse.
The Importance of Sources
In truth I am a great believer in the importance of sources. Even before I studied journalism and public relations at New York University several decades ago, I learned about presenting facts objectively at the Army Information School and as a public information specialist with an infantry regiment in Heilbronn, Germany (1955-56). and in Fort Carson, Colo., (1957), where I also dabbled in news photography.
A fact certainly is a fact to me if I know it to be true. But if you state a fact to me, you'd better tell me your source if you expect me to give it any credence -- and don't try to tell me you read it in "Today in History!"
I wrote this column as a "My View" for The Hour newspaper of Norwalk, Conn., on Aug. 26, 1999.