There is no good journalism without information. But there are very different types: poor, decent, good, great, and too good. Most of these gradations sound like they should be obvious, but sometimes they’re not. And as odd as it might sound at first, too good is as much of a hindrance as poor.
The trick is to get the right balance of information so that you have material with the baseline quality that you need at each point of the story without getting tripped up by the information you’re using.
That means asking questions about the quality of information at each step.
Talking with sources is one of the primary ways to get information. There’s a whole range of considerations when filtering through what they say.
First consideration is a person’s potential motives. Someone who has an axe to grind or something to gain may be motivated to make statements that won’t hold up to come degree, whether partly or completely. That doesn’t mean dismiss what they offer. Only, look at it carefully.
Look at each person’s background and get a sense of what they might know or not. This gets tricky, as some people will make up something for virtually any topic because they want the attention. The more you know about the subject you’re writing about, the more easily you can tell when someone knows what they’re talking about or is blowing smoke.
The biggest giveaway is when a person’s comments get general or vague. I remember once interviewing a c-list performer who claimed to have gotten a degree in math. Which the person may have received, except when I asked about the angle they focused on (I was a math major in college), they kept talking around it. The performer was worried about keeping a geek cred they had, I guess, but it made me wary about everything they said.
I’ve seen the same thing happen with a couple that owned a business. All the answers were vague. I ultimately stopped the interview because there was no sense in wasting time. The two got upset, but the answers didn’t get any better, so that was the end of the discussion.
Numbers may seem to be real, but they might not be, depending on a variety of factors. Remember that Corona beer and virus “survey” that left a number of major news outlets burned by their lack of checking and the PR firm that pitched the story? That’s an example of how numbers can be a figment of someone else’s imagination.
But even when you have a credible source of data, the information you gain may be mediocre or even bad because you don’t understand how it fits into a larger context. Unemployment numbers are a great example.
Much of the reporting of unemployment for April 2020 was off base. Too few journalists were digging into the definitions of the numbers they were reporting on to understand what they actually meant.
When the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases the monthly job numbers, they’ve used the results of two different surveys that generally occur in the week that contains the 12th of that month.
In other words, if a survey is taken in the second full week of a month and the increase in unemployment is rapid, the survey results wouldn’t give an accurate picture of the entire month. Complicating the picture is who counts as unemployed. If someone didn’t apply for a job—if they just looked at listings, for example—the week before, they aren’t counted as part of the work force.
As a result, the unemployment number is likely artificially low. Without that context, the story will likely get basic facts wrong.
Similarly, you can’t assume that any information a company or interested party hands you is correct. Too many people in corporate communications are willing to palm off anything they can. Don’t become a dupe.