The 7 habits of successful journalists: how do you develop scepticism?

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Scepticism as the voice of the audience

If curiosity represents the journalist acting as the eyes and ears of the audience, scepticism is where we act as the mouth of the audience.

  • “If your reader was in the room/on the call/sending the email, what would they ask this person?”
  • “What questions might your audience ask about the evidence you’ve been given?”
  • “What extra information might they need to make sense of it?”
  • “Your political opponents might suggest that your motivations are financial. What is your response to that?”
  • “Our readers might ask how you can know that if you weren’t there?”
  • “Those studying the data on this overwhelmingly say that the opposite is true. What evidence is your claim based on?”
  • “Your employees might be sceptical of that claim. How would you respond to that?”

Scepticism frameworks: verification and data biographies

Scepticism and imagination — and cynicism as a failure of imagination

Scepticism is also another example of the journalist exercising their imagination: the sceptical journalist must always ask “But what if this information is not true?” — what if?

  • ‘What if they are lying?’;
  • ‘What if they didn’t witness it directly?’;
  • ‘What if they misunderstood?’;
  • ‘What if they misheard?’;
  • ‘What if they have a reason to omit key information?’

Methods for developing scepticism

  1. Report it as a widely accepted or acknowledged fact whose source has no relevance to the story;
  2. Attribute the statement to allow the audience to make a decision as to its trustworthiness, including any relevant information that may inform that decision (for example, the person has a vested interest);
  3. Perform some additional checks to establish what basis there is for the claim (this includes a ‘what if’ exercise to explore reasons for the claim not being accurate);
  4. Omit the claim from the report

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Paul Bradshaw

Paul Bradshaw

Write the @ojblog. I run the MA in Data Journalism and the MA in Multiplatform and Mobile Journalism @bcujournalism and wrote @ojhandbook #scrapingforjournos