My plane landed late at night in New Delhi on my first visit to India, so I was still groggy at 6 a.m. when the sound of shouting right outside my window jolted me awake.
Worried that something was amiss, I jumped out of bed and ran into the next room of the guesthouse where I was staying. There, a man stood next to a stovetop. He smiled calmly as he flipped an egg in a pan. The shouting stopped and a clattering replaced it, which faded as what sounded like a pushcart moved down the road. Hours later, someone explained that the person shouting was a vegetable vendor announcing the day’s produce.
Even today, when I retell that story, I focus first on what I knew for sure was happening: Someone was shouting. That was accurate. But my understanding of the situation—that the shouting was a sign that something terrible was happening—wasn’t true.
It is possible for a piece of information to be accurate, but not true.
I could recount my experience with precise accuracy but I wasn’t a reliable compiler of facts because I didn’t understand the local context. In my culture, the sound of early-morning shouting is cause for alarm. I used that cultural norm as a standard for truth, casting that vegetable seller as a potentially-violent interloper.
At Global Press Journal, we call this the Reliability Gap.
When one culture sets the standard for truth (and implements that standard regardless of location), the narratives that culture culls from other places are likely to be warped.
This is especially true in journalistic reporting and research, which is largely governed by Western media groups and major international agencies that collect and analyze data based on Western standards. It’s natural for the person who collects information to filter that data through her own experiences. That’s one reason why every reporter at Global Press Journal is from the community on which she reports: When you speak the local language and understand local customs, the information you gather is filtered in a culturally appropriate way.
Poverty data is a common sticking point for Global Press Journal reporters. According to the World Bank, 36 percent of Kenyans live on less than $1.90 per day. But Global Press reporters there know that, in some areas, some thriving farmers own vast swaths of rich farmland and manage large herds of cattle. They eat what they grow and don’t spend even a dollar on most days. As one of our Kenyan reporters once asked, “Can we call them poor?” The World Bank’s poverty data asserts a narrative that neglects to consider the dignity of a life carried out in a mostly-cashless society.
When one culture sets the standard for truth, the narratives that culture culls from other places are likely to be warped
In some cases, information gathered by unreliable researchers or journalists is used to set major international policies. Earlier this year, refugee agencies reported that people from Democratic Republic of Congo were moving across a lake into Uganda to get away from politically-related violence—a scenario that would qualify them for formal refugee status. Those reports were repeated by several major news outlets.
But one of our Congolese reporters who is based not far from there told us that the violence had nothing to do with politics, but instead was rooted in an old conflict over cattle grazing land.
The narrative publicized by the refugee officials—that the Congolese were escaping political violence—was convenient. It fit neatly with other things that Westerners assume about DRC, including that the country is largely violent and that people there are overwhelmingly desperate to leave. It didn’t occur to these officials that the Congolese who paddled to Uganda lived in an isolated part of DRC’s remote eastern edge, far from any urban area and largely disconnected from the political concerns that do sometimes spark violence elsewhere in the country.
Even so, the narratives that came out of that incident would qualify as evidence that they are targets of politically-motivated attacks. That’s one scenario that can earn someone a spot as a refugee in another country.
This sort of convenient knowledge builds on a logic system that tolerates inconsistencies in order to maintain the status quo.
For many research and news agencies, the process of gathering data results in a continual confrontation between Western assumptions and non-Western cultures. While that reality makes the truth less convenient to find, there is a huge potential payoff for those who seek it in context: A meaningful negotiation between equal partners who can respectfully create systems to help determine what is true.
At Global Press Journal, we believe it’s difficult—if not impossible—to determine the truth without engaging local people. Every story we publish is reported by a local person. Every story includes sources who are as close as possible to the situations described. And reporters are supported by a robust editorial team dedicated to accuracy.
Here’s a recent example. Merveille Kavira Lungehe, another Global Press Journal reporter in Democratic Republic of Congo, published a story about an armed group that took over a village and now charges a tax to people who enter and leave the community, including to work in their fields. Merveille included precise details, down to the exact amount of the tax (1,000 Congolese francs—about 62 cents—to enter the village).
The village, Miriki, isn’t on Google maps. How could we confirm its existence? And the armed group wasn’t about to agree to an interview to confirm the amount of the tax.
So how did the team verify the information? International human rights groups had referenced the village and its location, researchers who specialize in studying DRC noted that armed groups frequently take control of communities in that area, and Merveille personally counted the abandoned houses to confirm that some families had left the village. And that tax? Merveille personally confirmed that it was 1,000 Congolese francs. She was forced to pay it herself.
The editing process for that story was a meaningful negotiation between team members—Global Press employs fact checkers, copy editors, translators and researchers who work on every story we produce—who brought diverse perspectives. Each person asked different types of questions and sought answers via various avenues. Ultimately, the most complex pieces of information could only be confirmed by Merveille, the person with the local access. The result is a report that is 100 percent verified.
We believe the future success of the news business depends on news agencies that will commit to closing the Reliability Gap, and we’re leading the way.