In the summer of last year ProPublica published a major investigation into air pollution in Florida, and its connection to the sugar industry. The story itself, Black Snow, is an inspiring example of scrollytelling — but equally instructive is the methodology article which accompanies it, responding to criticisms from the sugar industry.
Not only does it demonstrate how to respond when large organisations attack a piece of journalism — it also provides a great lesson on the tactics that are adopted by organisations when attacking data-driven stories.
In this post I want to break down the three most common attack tactics, how ProPublica deal with two of those, and how to use the same tactics during planning to ensure your project design isn’t flawed.
On its own the first habit of a successful journalist — curiosity — can only take us so far as a journalist: as we ask questions of our sources, we cannot merely report what people tell us — especially if two different sources say contrasting things.
Scepticism is important in journalism because it moves us from merely repeating what people have said, to establishing the factual basis that puts that information into context — whether those facts support or contradict those statements, or do not exist at all.
This has become particularly important in a modern information age when most public bodies can communicate with the public directly, without that accountability.
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.
More specifically, it is the way in which we give a voice to an audience which isn’t able to ask questions itself. Continue reading →
A couple weeks ago I published a guide to cognitive biases for journalists. I saved perhaps the biggest one of all — confirmation bias — for a post all of its own. It might be one of the best-known biases, but for that very reason it can be easy to underestimate. Here, then, is what you need to know — and what to do to reduce it.
What is confirmation bias — and how does it affect journalism?
Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out — or more easily believe or recall — information that confirms our existing beliefs.
It leads us to make judgements that are not based on an equal assessment of all the evidence, but only that evidence we have cherry picked, remembered or attributed more credibility to.
For the last few years I’ve been teaching my journalism students a dedicated class on cognitive bias — common ways of thinking that lead journalists (and audiences and sources) to make avoidable mistakes.
So if you were thinking “this doesn’t apply to me”, read on for a guide to some of the cognitive biases likely to affect journalists — from being manipulated by sources to being bad editors of our own copy — and what to do to tackle them. Continue reading →