I am going to make a bold statement. The more news I watch, the more obvious it is that many journalists, in the rush to be first, make a lot of assumptions. If you really take a critical look at a lot of high profile TV news gaffes, you’ll see the pattern. So let’s talk about how to ask a vital question more often in newsrooms while writing stories.
How to avoid assumptions:
Where did I get this information?
How did the newsroom get the information?
List confirmed specifics
Reliability of source(s)
The first question you must ask yourself is where did I get this information. I am using the possessive term for a specific reason. A lot of assumptions are made by the person writing the story. Especially when you are rewriting from a previous version of a story or reworking a reporter package script into a vo or vosot. Anchor intros are another place a lot of assumption rewrites are made. It happens with teases too. I am listing all of this because I want to make it clear how often this can and does happen and how often you need to ask yourself where you got the information you are writing.
The natural follow up question is where did the newsroom get the information? If it is a reporter piece you are breaking down, do not just look at the package. Read the notes in the assign cue as well. If something seems a little strange ask the person who copy edited the story if they understood the story the same way. Do not be afraid to ask, where did you get this information of the assignment editor, the producer, the reporter even the executive producer. Everyone needs to get in the habit of being skeptics and double checking each other. It all starts with not just taking things at face value. Verify all information, even if it aired before.
That’s where listing confirmed specifics comes in. Take the 5 w’s and run through each story and identify them, then identify them from the assignment cue or previous version of the story. Does everything match? Is there a source tied to each of the answers? Is it clear that facts were verified?
You have to consider the reliability of sources. If a bunch of information is listed in the assign cue and there is no source listed with a time called or a news release mentioned, you have to wonder if the assignment editor is listing possible facts. Next you need to consider the source itself. Is this an intern calling to verify information? Who specifically did they talk with? Is it the PIO who sometimes gets the facts wrong? Did someone call to verify the news release the station got, to make sure the facts are all what they seem? Again, be a skeptic. Figure what you see is not true and that you need proof. Do not just take the word of the writer who wrote it before you. Ask for clarification. Make the time.
Finally, if the facts seem strange or unlikely, they probably are. Too often a producer or reporter doing a follow up will report something that just didn’t make sense but ASSUMED the person before them did the fact checking. If the facts do not pass the sniff test, demand to know where the information came from. If you are being asked to provide the information do not get offended. Make the time. Appreciate the skepticism. It could keep both of you from making the trades and being publicly humiliated. Even more important it could keep you from continuing to make a factual error that erodes credibility and/or negatively impacts people’s lives. It is your duty to ask twice. Demanding two sources, verifying what you are told and saying show me are all key elements of being a journalist. Do not let yourself and those around you make assumptions.