What’s the first thing you do when you start work on an important story?
I guess you do some basic research, chase out the essential facts, look at what else has been written or published. Maybe you start ringing around for the best contacts. Maybe you talk to colleagues or your editor to work out a basic plan of attack.
But there is something else that I think every good journalist should do right at the beginning of an assignment, and it is sometimes easy to overlook. It’s something that goes to the core requirement of our commitment to impartiality.
Before you start, the first thing you should do is pause for a moment and think about what you yourself are bringing to the story. What are your own opinions, your own perspective, your own thoughts and assumptions?
We are all subjective. We all bring with us our own particular baggage, our world view. And it is fundamentally important to challenge ourselves, to question our assumptions and do our best to step back from them and look at issues afresh. If our business is all about asking hard questions of others, we should first be prepared to ask them of ourselves.
In the recently released guidance note on Impartiality , there is some very good practical advice on the importance of this step, and the basic questions to ask yourself. There is also some very good general advice on bringing an open-minded approach to your journalism:
· Broaden the range of material you consume to both expand and challenge your horizons.
· Broaden your range of contacts and/or the people you approach for advice – the essence of impartiality is to understand all the significant and relevant perspectives on any issue.
· Be respectfully critical and sceptical of experts – their expertise may be very helpful to you, but no one specialist has all the answers, and a diversity of views is still required.
· Explore the intellectual arguments you might personally tend to ignore and do your best to understand why others believe in them.
· Be challenging of conventional wisdoms.
If you take that advice, you realise pretty quickly that it not only involves questioning your own assumptions when embarking on a story, but even questioning the choice of story in the first place.
None of this leads to bland, colourless reporting or “he said, she said” journalism. Questioning your own assumptions and trying to explore positions you personally disagree with doesn’t mean you create content which draws no conclusions, falsely equates all views as being the same or simply lists a series of facts and statements without critical analysis and interpretation.
But what it helps to ensure is that the facts and the weight of evidence drive the editorial processes as much as possible, rather than the reporter’s own values and perspectives.