June 4, 2004

“Challenge your assumptions.”  That mantra makes sense for journalists and for news consumers.

Whether we’re one or the other or both, our understanding of news improves when we remind ourselves of two important questions:

– What do we know?
– What do we need to know?

Regular readers of this column will recognize those issues from the 10 questions developed by Bob Steele, the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values.

These simple, direct, unambiguous questions move us into the arena of the complex, indirect, and ambiguous answers that often require more questions, more answers, and fewer assumptions. 

The value of the two questions, and the need to challenge our assumptions, occurred to me again when I began following two different news events.

One involved the recent note from editors of The New York Times addressing the newspaper’s coverage leading up to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, and of the initial stages of that occupation.  The other dealt with a Pew survey of journalists that examines their views on the profession and how their values compare with the public at large.

Judging from the coverage, the note prompted not only a slew of stories by other news organizations, it also sent many assumption meters into overdrive. The note offered information, which in turn, prompted others to raise many more questions. (See box for related stories.) 

Here are some, but not all, of the questions that occurred to me as I read the original note, and some of the reporting that followed. (Others have raised some of these questions as well.) So, in the vein of “What do I need to know?”:

– Why did the Times choose to do a note from the editors instead of a story?
– Why was it described as an explanation but not an apology?
– Why did the note have few people identified by name? (I counted two Iraqi sources and one military affairs reporter.)
– Why didn’t the note identify who wrote it?
– Why did the note appear on A10?
– Why didn’t the note explain why it was being published that day, instead of earlier or later?
– When will we see more such notes?
– Will we see reporting on this coverage in the way we saw it with the Jayson Blair affair?
– Why didn’t the questions raised in the note occur to the editors and reporters before they published the stories?
– What will the Times be doing to avoid the problems it raised in the editor’s note?

The Pew survey — especially the part about values — and the subsequent stories it generated prompted more questions for me as well:

– How did Pew define “liberal,” “conservative,” and “moderate,” for the journalists and the public who were asked the questions about how they would describe themselves?
– What assumptions, if any, did Pew make by asking such a question?
– How are those who are reporting or commenting on the terms “liberal,” “conservative,” and “moderate” define those terms?
– Why did some of those who wrote about the difference in values assume that it would reflect a bias in the way journalists would do their work?
– If that bias does exist, how does it manifest itself in the reporting of the news?
– If journalists shared the same values in the same proportion as the public does, would that lead to fairer reporting?
– What assumption is being made by those who suggest the inclusion of more “conservative” journalists in mainstream newsrooms would expand the diversity initiatives now associated with race, gender, and other differences?
– What prompts some journalists and news consumers to assume the mainstream news media is “liberal,” “conservative,” or “moderate”?

I raise these questions not in judgment, or as indictments. I pose them as ways to get a better understanding. And to challenge any assumptions I might harbor.

When I touched base with some of Poynter’s Ethics Fellows, who had been discussing the Times and Iraq coverage, they told me I could use the following comments that had been made during an e-mail discussion between them.

Paul Holmes, an editor at Reuters, said: “We all run the risk day in, day out, of being a touch too credulous in our pursuit of exclusivity and speed. We have to resist that temptation.”

He noted that sources usually don’t “give information to journalists out of the goodness of their hearts.” They have agendas, he said, and journalists need to find out how they know what they know and press them to go on the record, or identify them “more precisely so readers can judge the credibility of the information.”

Eric Deggans, who writes about the media for the St. Petersburg Times, noted that “the reason critics like myself protested anchors wearing flags on their lapels and using words such as “us” and “we” in referring to the military since 9/11 is because a free press is at its best when it is skeptical.” He added that “classic patriotism demands a suspension of skepticism that is directly in conflict with our role as gatekeepers and professional skeptics.”

So what are some ways we might challenge ourselves on a regular basis?

As journalists, it may involve challenging:

– Our preconceptions about what the news story is
– Our blanket acceptance of what sources tell us
– What we believe about the source’s agenda
– What we see as our agenda
– What we choose to report and not report

As news consumers, it may involve challenging:

– Our automatic acceptance of what news organizations offer
– Our tendency to rely on just one or two news media outlets
– Our reluctance to ask more questions about what is being reported and how it is being reported
– Our inclination to seek out news that only reflects our worldview, our political ideology, or our social perspectives

We could challenge ourselves in other ways as well. Feel free to share with us some of the ways you challenge your assumptions. Tell us what questions you ask about yourself, your objectives, your stories, and your sources.

Remember that challenging your assumptions and those of your sources doesn’t mean you distrust them. Instead, the challenge serves as a tool for making your stories truer to the complexity and ambiguity that exists in the world we report.

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Aly Colón is the John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Previously, Colón led…
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