You put in five hours to write an article, published it on Youth Ki Awaaz, only to be told that your facts were inaccurate or that your arguments were not backed up by facts. Bummer!
Even when an error is not deliberate, or when you had nothing but good intentions behind writing a story, your efforts may go down the drain if the information in your story doesn’t add up, or if it’s false or inaccurate.
As scary as that might sound, it isn’t very difficult to avoid these mistakes or keep them to a minimum. And we are here to tell you how! It’s simple, really. All you need to do is to answer these four questions before you begin writing.
Let’s assume that you are writing an opinion article about journalist Gauri Lankesh getting shot, and you state in your post that India was the deadliest country in the world for journalists in 2017. It is true that the murder was gruesome, and that India is witnessing different kinds of attacks on press freedom. But was India the deadliest country in the world for journalists in 2017? Not really, data says.
If you had just asked yourself – How do I know this? – you would have compared the number of journalists who died in India in 2017 with the number from the rest of the world, and removed your statement. When you ask yourself how you know something, you check your own prejudices.
When you wrote the deadliest-country statement in the said opinion article, you were relying on your own instincts. You could avoid false information in that case by asking yourself the first question.
But you are not the source of all information and opinions in the world. Sometimes, you have to rely on other people for both. It is then important to ask them: How do you know this?
When you ask this question, you will know how reliable other people’s information or opinion is. If they say they know “India was the deadliest country in the world for journalists in 2017” because they “heard it in a conversation”, or because they read that “a prominent journalist was murdered”, they are just guessing. They don’t really know, and you still need to look for those numbers.
Sometimes, our source of information or opinion is neither our own self nor a person standing in front of us. It can come from a report we read or a panellist we heard speaking on a news channel.
Even those who have a good BS-detector, can sometimes get misled, especially if the information is coming from a medium we trust. That’s why it is important to question the media too. How do we do that? We ask: How do they know this?
Now, you can’t really question newspapers and channels every time, but there are ways to solve this problem. A good practice most journalists and writers follow is to tell other people how they know something. If they are stating a deadliest-country fact, they will also tell you how they know this.
Example: According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a non-profit organisation that compiles data on journalists killed around the world, Iraq is the deadliest country in the world for journalists in 2017, with 8 of them likely being killed so far in the country for their work.
If something you read, hear or watch, for information isn’t stating how the information has been obtained, you must continue your hunt.
Even after asking the first three questions, there is still some room for inaccuracy. CPJ, for example, I have observed, relies mostly on news reports to compile its data. It is not the Registrar of Births and Deaths of Journalists, it does not monitor every journalist out there, and it does not gather news of their killing on its own. If a journalist’s murder is not reported anywhere, it is less likely that those numbers would figure in its stats.
We are back to square one and asking our sources how they know something. But herein also lies the secret to removing inaccuracies. You must keep asking the question. Too much work, is it? Well, that is why first-hand information is considered most reliable. As funny as it sounds, anyone who sees a person die, is free to write something like “I saw Gabbar, a journalist, die”.
But a fact-checker somewhere reading that sentence will still have two doubts. One, did the journalist really die? Meaning, did a registered medical practitioner/hospital/person-capable-of-confirming-deaths confirm that the person had really died?
And two, was Gabbar was really a journalist? Meaning, has any organisation authorised to designate somebody a journalist done so for Gabbar or has Gabbar produced a work of journalism?
Our supposedly dead fictional journalist has taught us two important lessons here:
a. The closer you are to a first-hand source of information, the more likely it is to be accurate.
b. Producing certain kinds of information requires skill, training, or specialised knowledge. When looking at those kinds of information, you must consult a person with that extra information.
This is really nearly all you need to do to keep your article accurate. Ask these questions every time you write a sentence, and you are less likely to make a mistake. If this sounds like too much work, try remembering a piece of news that made you believe something false or inaccurate, and do the drill!