What Happened?

April 27, 2010 at 3:41 pm Leave a comment

“What happened?”

That’s what I’m asking when I glance at headlines on the morning newspaper, and when I scan through Google Reader, trying to decide into which story I want to dive more deeply.

What happened on the oil rig off the Louisiana coast? What is happening in Congress as our elected officials attempt to prevent further fiscal fallout? What are my Minnesota Timberwolves going to do in the off-season to improve for next year?

I want the facts. I want the truth. And I expect to get that information up front without the personal analysis of the writer. Along the way, I might learn why the oil rig failed, and why our economy collapsed (though probably not), and why the T’Wolves bombed last season. But I read (or listen to, or watch) the news in a facts-first mission.

When I encounter “news” delivered with a “because” up front, I’m suspicious. With my examples of oil rig, economy, or Timberwolves, do you think there is any one reason (or even 2 or simply 3 reasons?) “why” the facts played out as they did?

I even watch my diverse Twitter feeds in a similar fact-finding mission. And I have to filter out a lot of opinion and promotion to get to facts via Twitter, but I know that and I’m okay with it.

But I was quite surprised recently when a particular journalism expert I follow tweeted the following: @10000Words: Now that I’m on the other side of the coin I realize journalists would yield better answers if they asked “Why?” instead of “What?”

I have followed @10000Words for months, and am generally impressed with the information and insight he provides. But this tweet just had me asking “Why?” Yes, journalists should ask Why as part of the 5 Ws and 1 H questioning (Who, What, Why, When, Where and How). But to ask Why instead of asking What is to destroy the foundation of journalism.

In fact, I might say that you could eliminate the Why from the 5 Ws and 1 H. It’s the single question that does not require a factual answer. The remaining 4 Ws and 1 H, all provide verifiable factual answers that could be tested by the likes of PolitiFact or other fact-checking organizations. “Why” most often leads to opinion, a one-sided spin. Yes, asking “Why” can also lead to valuable analysis. But it seldom delivers the facts.

Ask “Why.” But not at the expense of the facts.

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Entry filed under: Communications, journalism, Writing.

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