NPR’s This American Life program did an influential piece in January about the abysmal working conditions at Foxconn, Apple’s Taiwanese manufacturing partner that assembles most of its products in China. Now, they’re retracting it, saying that its key source Mike Daisey lied to them.
The radio program on Friday acknowledged its failure in properly vetting Daisey’s stories. At one point in the fact-checking process, Daisey apparently told them that there was no way to reach his interpreter because her cell phone number was no longer working. They admit that they should’ve killed the story at that point.
It’s great that they’re explaining all of this openly, but what was equally revealing was their explanation about their fact-checking methods. According to an early version of the New York Times’ blog post about the news, the program fact-checked Daisey’s claims with “journalists who cover these factories, people who work with the electronics industry in China, activists and labor groups.” Its host Ira Glass said they felt comfortable with the story when no one “seemed very surprised” by the conditions that Dailey described.
That the program’s fact-checking standards are that shoddy was a revelation to me. Consulting people familiar with the industry does not count as fact-checking if none of them have actually seen the conditions for themselves. That makes them, at best, weak secondary sources. Activists and labor groups also don’t count as fact-checking because they have an agenda. They want to see the story out.
The charges that Daisey made were serious and as such it should have been scrutinized carefully. Dailey isn’t a journalist. He never claimed to be. It should have also been another red flag that he didn’t speak the language, especially given that he was an outside observer in a foreign situation. Even if you trusted everything he said, you don’t know what was was lost in translation. It’s very easy to manipulate the nuance of a conversation that took place in a foreign language when you have the power to choose the words in the English translation, so you have to be damn sure that he was in a position to understand the entire situation enough to put things in an accurate context. That doesn’t automatically disqualify him as a source, but it does mean that you want a couple inside sources with first-hand knowledge about the situation to thoroughly vett his report before you go out with it.
As a reporter, I can understand how this could have happened. It’s an attention-grabbing story about a hot topic that everyone is interested in and it’s too tempting not to run with it. The unfortunate outcome of all this, of course, is that they’ve taken the steam out of a valid issue that should be discussed and debated.