The internet is rife with misinformation. But there’s something out there that’s less talked about: poorly-researched information. And in a world where more and more journalists and media makers rely on internet sources to tell their stories, this is a problem.
When I began researching the latest season of Teamistry, I began with online articles, videos, and podcasts. Since we were doing a serialized season telling the story of Concorde, from inception to end of service, I needed to know as much as I could about the entire history so I could write a brief for our clients.
Some of the “facts” that I encountered:
- Concorde was built by British Airways and Air France (it wasn’t, it was built by French and British government-backed aircraft manufacturers, BA didn’t even exist at the time)
- The Soviet supersonic jet, the Tupolev-144, was a direct copy of Concorde thanks to espionage (it wasn’t, the TU-144 was quite different and claims of espionage are exaggerated)
- Concorde went out of service after the July 2000 Air France crash (it didn’t, Concorde flew for two years after the crash and there were much more significant factors that lead to its demise)
Here’s how these half-truths become insidious: at some point, someone did minimal research and published an article or blog post. Then, for years and years, other people used those articles as the basis of their own work. Poorly researched information becomes the basis for the story we all end up hearing.
Something very similar happened while researching a Teamistry episode about Seiko’s history. The story you’ll read online is that in the early 60s, Seiko split their company in two to foster competition. And that the resulting companies, Grand Seiko and King Seiko, operated independently. None of that is quite right: there was no formal split, and “Grand” and “King” were brands created and managed by Seiko, not its subsidiaries. By speaking to people in Japan, including a Seiko employee and historian, I discovered the more complicated, and in fact, more interesting truth. Have a listen to the episode to hear more about it in detail.
With Concorde, my initial online research brought up many contradictions, so I knew I had to dig deeper. I started by going old school: I read a book. And then another, and then another. Some of the books were written by historians, some by original Concorde engineers and pilots. That got me close to what had actually happened, which again, is more complex and nuanced than blogs would have you believe. But the best thing we did was to travel to Britain and France and speak to people in person.
My host Nastaran Tavakoli-Far and I spent a week visiting the places where Concorde had originally been built, speaking to engineers, designers, and workers who had been there, from the 1960s onwards. Not only did this give me the opportunity to fact check some of the stories I had read about, but allowed me to hear stories directly from the people who had been there. The value of talking to people is not about information transfer, of course, it’s about understanding the nuances of a story through tone, body language, and all the things that aren’t said. I should state, at this point, that there’s a difference, clearly, between what happened and what people think happened. But at least when we let people tell stories in their own voices, the audience can better understand the nuances of that space between experience and perception.
Doing thorough research doesn’t only mean peeling away layers of misunderstanding. It also comes with a responsibility to your sources. Let me explain.
I have been a journalist and broadcaster for over two decades, so I know the pressures we can be under. Deadlines and client/boss expectations are just a couple. One of the biggest pressures is the need to create a narrative. Something that ties together a complicated story simply and easily. Something the audience can understand without too much effort. But life doesn’t work like that. One thing does not necessarily lead to the next. In oversimplifying stories, we sometimes need to leave out key information or slightly bend things to make them fit. One of the hardest things in our jobs is to be faced with a series of facts, some of which are contradictory, and fit them together into some kind of narrative. But that’s what we have to do, instead of smoothing out or ignoring the incongruous bits.
But this isn’t only about journalistic integrity and objectivity. First off, I’m not sure objectivity is possible in the real world. Perhaps transparency is a much better goal. A big concern for me in telling a story as truthfully as possible is to respect the people whose stories we are telling. Often, as journalists, we meet with someone, stick a microphone in their face, hoover up their memories and then reshape and broadcast their story in our own way. And our sources have no say or control. I think we, as creators, need to be more sensitive to the fact that we are putting out into the world a version of events that involve real people with real lives. And that means doing the hard work of reconciling the stories they’ve shared with the story we want to tell. Even if that means shifting our original concepts.
Despite my lofty intentions, and several months of hard work, I’m sure people will still find issues with the Concorde series. Perhaps we missed an important fact or unknowingly exaggerated another. But I’m proud to say that we set our standard as double-or triple-checking all our facts, from sources that are either first-person or well-vetted. In fact, the series has a bibliography, for two reasons: as a way for listeners to learn more if they want to dig deeper; and to be transparent with our listeners about which sources we used.
And while I hope “Making an Impossible Airplane: the Untold Story of Concorde” will dispel some misunderstandings, I sincerely hope we won’t create any new ones.