“He had two knives” or when is a fact a fact?

When is a knife a knife?

“He had to knives” and “Police said he had two knives” are two separate facts. One of the problems some new journalists on English Wikinews is recognizing what is a fact, and the above is a classic example. It is really easy to write opinions or assertions as facts without intending to.

A fair amount of Wikinews writing is synthesis writing.  We may not be able to verify the facts ourselves by talking to sources, witnessing an event ourselves, or reading the original source material.  It is really important to understand the facts that the sources we have present to us. If a source says, “Police said he had two knives,” the source is asserting that it is not a fact that he had two knives.  The fact is the claim.  This is very different from a claim of “He had two knives,” where “he had two knives” is the fact.

This might seem like a minor quibble, but it has the potential to be hugely important.  Picture a court case.  All the evidence is clear: “He had two knives” which he used to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  Lots of people saw him with two knives.  There were two dirty knives in the sink which had his fingerprints on them.  He admitted to having two knives, and using them to make sandwiches. There was a picture of him using two knives to make a sandwich.  His name was engraved on the  knives.  We know those knives are his.  That is a fact.

In other situations, this may not be a fact.  There was no picture of him with two knives.  They did not have his fingerprints on them.  The knives were not found in his house.  He denied that the knives belonged to him and that he used them to make a sandwich.  On the other hand, the police claim that he had two knives.  In this case, maybe the knives do belong to him.  (He could have wiped down his fingerprints, taken the knives out of the house, lied about not owning the knives and not making a sandwich.)  What we do know as a fact is the police made this claim.

These finer points do matter, and they impact how people understand the news they read.

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