This weekend, I posted a link to Facebook that told the story of a flight attendant who responded to a racist white passenger by moving the African American man next to her to first class. Before the post, I mentioned that “This might not be true, but the principle is still sound.” I didn’t think the story sounded factual, more like a parable or a fable to make a point. Researching the story seemed like too much effort; hence the disclaimer.

A Group of Escaped Slaves in VA in 1862. Courtesy of the Library of Congress via Letters of Note

Yet, still, a discussion about the story’s veracity erupted with people like my friends Seth and Vaughn pointing out how this kind of writing – with its attempt to seem factual – undermines the power of actually factual stories. I definitely can see their point, particularly with things written on Facebook. So often, people share things without knowing if they are real and truthful, and too much of that undermines all of the information we put out there. We need to be better about only sharing what is factual or clueing our readers in when it’s not.

The same holds true for us as writers. When James Frey confessed his fabrications in A Million Little Pieces, he undermined all of us who write nonfiction, particularly those of work in memoir. Suddenly, the facts of our stories came under question. We were having to defend ourselves against queries and probes that were not warranted or wanted. If he had simply published the book as fiction (as he originally tried to do) or stuck with the actual facts of his life and just written them well or even added a preface that clarified that some of the elements of the story were exaggerated (although I don’t like this option very much – might as well be fiction then), he would have saved himself and us a lot of trouble. Of course, he doesn’t seem to have suffered much long-term given that he still gets book deals and his books sell really well, but he did leave a wake of damage in nonfiction writing.

What happens when we are aren’t responsible for verifying the veracity of what we write (or post) is that amazing things that are factual fall under the shadow of doubt, too. Take, for example, this powerful letter from a former enslaved man, Jourdan Anderson, to his former master. Because of my book, someone on Twitter kindly sent me this link early yesterday; I read it and was totally blown away by both the content and the astounding rhetorical skill of Mr. Anderson. I wanted to share it with everyone I know.

But then, because of the nature of these things, I had to be sure it was true. I didn’t want to perpetuate a falsehood – particularly around a subject that is so important to me. So I took one minute and checked out the sources. Sure enough – factual, accurate, and documented. I shared it widely, and today I see the letter has gone viral – as it should. It’s that stupendous.

It’s too bad that we can’t simply trust what we see in print or on the screen, but we do well – as writers and readers – to be less naive about what we write and read. And if we need a disclaimer to clarify or a little research to verify, we’re all the better for those things.

What is your response to writing that you find to be fictional, even if it has been presented as fact? What do you do to verify what you write and share?

My friend Ken Mueller over at Inkling Media has some interesting things to say about this subject, too, from the perspective of a social media professional. Stop by and weigh in on his post, if you will.