I have been thinking of late about a common expression in America that comes from the classic television show, "Dragnet." The protagonist of the gritty police series, Sgt. Joe Friday, is forever linked to the expression, "Just the facts, ma'am."
Nowadays, it seems getting just the facts is easier said than done. The debate emanating from Washington, D.C., about "alternative facts" and "fake news" has served as fodder for the media, political pundits, and late-night talk show hosts. But it should be particularly troubling to anyone who works in internal auditing. One of the fundamentals of our profession is communicating the results of our audits in a clear, concise, and objective manner, and there should never be disagreements over our final reports when it comes to the facts.
One definition of fact is, "anything that is indisputably the case." This definition, while seemingly straightforward, leaves wiggle room for those who want to debate what is indisputable. And it is one of the 21st Century's most ubiquitous features that is feeding that debate.
The internet has contributed greatly to the fuss over facts. Never in human history has information flowed so easily to so many people. Yet the internet lends credibility to things that aren't trustworthy or even to outright falsehoods.
Don't get me wrong. Alternative points of view are important, but the internet has no filter on whether something is factual or not. Ironically, the greatest communication tool in human history has made it easier for people to forge their own version of the facts and insulate themselves from information that doesn't agree with their points of view.
This insulation also has made it easier to conflate fact with truth. The subtle but important difference is that fact is something that cannot be disputed with reasoning or argument. The sun is shining. The earth is round. But what one believes is true depends on a person's perspective, experiences, and biases.
Throughout history, tools that made it easier to communicate with the masses — written language, the printing press, radio, television, the internet — created conditions that fostered disruptions to the social, economic, and governmental status quo. In this context, part of the disruption created by the internet is an atmosphere where fake news and alternative facts can thrive.
As long as the internet continues to provide online sources that act as echo chambers for our own beliefs, there will be a segment of the population that will insulate itself from contrary views and never get the full picture.
As internal auditors, we can never limit our investigations only to resources that agree with our premises. Getting to the root cause requires practicing intellectual honesty. This concept challenges us to leave our preconceived notions at the door. Much has been written about intellectual honesty, but the main lessons for internal auditors are its four core concepts:
- Personal beliefs do not interfere with getting to the facts.
- Relevant facts and information are never purposefully omitted, even when they contradict one's premise.
- Facts are presented in an unbiased manner and not twisted to give misleading impressions or to support one view over another.
- References, or earlier works, are acknowledged or attributed.
These concepts should sound familiar to most internal auditors. Whether called intellectual honesty or simply professionalism, good internal auditors have an innate sense that getting to the root cause requires giving appropriate consideration to all facts they unearth. When contradictions in data arise, they dig deeper to resolve them.
I vividly recall an internal audit engagement when I realized how critical it is to gain agreement on the facts. I presented the manager of an area that I had just audited with a draft report containing my findings (statements of fact including criteria, condition, cause, and effect) along with recommendations to correct the conditions cited.
To my utter dismay, he responded that he disagreed with every draft finding, but curiously he agreed to implement all of the recommendations. After some prodding, he admitted that he just didn't want the findings to be "on the record," but he acknowledged that corrective actions were needed. In essence, he wanted to insulate himself and others from the facts. In the end, I prevailed in publishing the report with all of the facts included, but it was an important lesson on how others can attempt to control or distort the flow of information.
Our stakeholders should take comfort in knowing we will always go the extra mile as long as that extra mile is directed by our search for facts. It is essential that we avoid getting caught up in the partisan politics and fallout from the alternative facts and fake news ruckus. Instead, internal auditors should see it as reason to redouble our efforts to conduct engagements honestly, thoroughly, and ethically.
As always, I welcome your thoughts.