23 Jan Question everything, especially the victims
Journalists are always into the negatives, and while working on an investigation it is easy to go too far into the black and be trapped in a kind of tunnel vision. As we want to reveal inequity with evidence hard and solid, we also want to find a victim – someone to tell their part of the story. And this is where the slippery slope starts.
Having a human factor in the story is understandable and desired as it helps the readers relate to the issue that might otherwise feel complicated and distant. As human beings we feel empathy for one another and especially for those who are underdogs. So the very thought of a journalist questioning a heartbreaking struggle someone has been through is repulsive.
Yet this is something we have to do.
When going after “the big bad wolf” it is a standard to question all information given. Unfortunately we more than often fail to question the information provided by the victim.
According to SVT’s Uppdrag granskning’s administrator and journalist Nils Hanson journalists need to work under a pretendence that everything is incorrect until proven otherwise. “We have to question the information that verifies our story. The questions will be asked in any case, if not by the journalists themselves then by the public”, Hanson said on a lecture he kept for my class at the University of Gothenburg during autumn 2016.
Hanson continued that trusting your sources, as vulnerable as they might be, might have devastating consequences that can lead to destroying the reputation of your news outlet or worst of all, contributing to war.
One of the biggest reasons for these mistakes is that media outlets and freelancers lack a system for fact quality control. The story is usually fact checked by only one person – the journalist. And since there is no devil’s advocate who tries to shoot down the story, bad judgement prevails from time to time.
Last week I wrote about my investigation in which I researched the child marriage situation in Finland. While working on this story and doing an interview, I noticed that I had fallen into this same pitfall: at no point had I questioned the reasons to why a minor might tell they are married. This was an eyeopening realisation.
Questioning a child’s life story–a devastating sequence of events I can understand but never relate to–feels like undermining and accusing the person of lying. It feels terrible. At the same time I know that this is something I need to do for the good of the story and the victim. If I wouldn’t do it, someone else would, probably with nasty outcomes.
While working on a story a journalist has to be brave enough to make conclusions for and against. These conclusions cannot be made without questioning the story itself. As difficult and unpleasant as it might feel, these steps will help you through the worst of it.
- Contact all your sources as early as possible.
- Question all your sources: What is their responsibility? Why didn’t they do more themself? And most importantly, what is their motivation to tell the story?
- Work under the pretendence that everything is false until proven otherwise.
- Distinguish the difference between true facts and the truth.
- Go into details on information that seems harmless or less important.
- Think about how to fact check absent facts.
I want to see and believe in the good in people and thus it isn’t easy to be sceptical about everything all the time. But it is worth it because as a journalist and a person I strive for a meaningful and wholesome story. A story that tells things truthfully if only from one perspective.