Six questions to ask about anything
Updated: Sep 7, 2021
There was a time when the news was just that — the news. It wasn't interwoven with opinion; and there was less having to figure out which was which.
As long as I’ve been a graphic designer, I’ve been an editor. I learnt them together. I don’t have formal qualifications in either; my training's been on the job. I’ve had exceptional teachers: some muckrakers, investigative journos, creative writers, an editor who taught sub-editing at university-level, and co-editors who challenged me on my writing, editing and analysis. (And some savvy and creative designers.) I did more than six years in radio and learnt how to write for the spoken word.
In that time, I learnt how to spot editorialising disguised as or woven into news — look for the liberal use of adjectives and adverbs. That weaving is now becoming more and more obvious these days. In the New York Times, for one, two journalists were found to have injected their own opinions into what readers would otherwise expect to be a news report. And it seemingly had the blessing of their editors. TV news is liberally sprinkled with opinion or perspective right up the front of a news story. I caught the ABC TV News recently opening a piece with "There's a worrying trend tonight . . ."
That would not have happened in James Dibble's day. (Look him up.) There was a time when news and editorial stayed out of each other’s business; when newsreaders and journalists were less invested in content; when they read or wrote the news without showing off, without the flare and the constant gesturing. They weren't the talent, so to speak! The story was. It might have been a bit boring by comparison with all the colour and movement that accompanies the news now. But it was delivered straight and you had more of a chance to figure out the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the story. You still had to parse the narrative; that never changes. It doesn't mean it was free of propaganda. But the model was pretty much rooted in 'just-the-facts' reporting, for example, what you found in court reporting or doing the police rounds, as it was known. It was how many a journo got their start. On the ground floor.
So, I thought I’d share some useful tools we can use to navigate the world of the news. Because what passes for news nowadays is different. Narratives are more obvious. So, I want to draw on the method those cub reporters of yesteryear used to write their copy. It was based on just six questions, the first four or five you had to answer, the last you could, if need be, shunt off to the editorial writers to mull over. If you don't see those first four in a story, you don't have the most basic picture.
The first four are Who, What, When and Where.
They are the basis of all stories. It’s hard to write one without them. They are also self-explanatory. You want to know what the story is about, who’s involved, when and where it happened.
Question 5 is ‘How’.
The ‘how’ is speculative. It's forensic. For most stories, it matters enormously. So, we ask:
How did this happen?
How do we know this happened?
How do we know this is what happened?
How do we know this was the cause of something?
The 'how' is the one question you may very well find yourself asking again and again throughout the story. That might, in part, be because it isn’t being asked enough, and therefore no one feels compelled to answer it. In the madhouse rush of the 24/7 news cycle, it’s all about being first and scooping your competitors. Doesn’t much matter if a few bits of the puzzle are missing — or even wrong (check out the ABC's MediaWatch almost every week) — as long as you’re first. The ‘how’, though, is the means by which we get to more of an explanation of a story. It might be frustrating, though, because no matter how often you ask it, you may not get to the core of it. But that's okay, you will know a lot more about what's missing. And you're getting better at asking questions. And you'll be more open to living with uncertainty.
Last up: ‘Why’.
Again, more speculation. It’s where, hopefully, you will find quotes in the story from those with an opinion on the ‘why’. It’s our chance to understand more about the reason/s for what's happened. Even to test the balance of the story, that is, if there are two sides to the story, do we hear them? Are both given a voice? Are they in quotes? We all want to know why: it is what intrigues us about ourselves and our actions. So we can ask:
Why did they do what they did?
Is it part of something else?
Part of a pattern?
Is there history to it?
And then you can ask some ‘what’ questions:
What does it mean?
What implications and repercussions might it have for something else?
What can be done about it?
And after you've exhausted all that: what conclusion/s can we draw?
These last two — How and Why — help us hone our discernment, help halt our rush to judgement, help deepen our awareness, and allow us space to ponder. It doesn't remove our biases — though in our search we might reflect on them. My hope is we can get closer to knowing more about how we form our views and opinions on, well, everything. And that can only be a good thing in the world today.
TL,DR* Who, What, When and Where plus How and Why. These are the tools, especially the last two, that can help tell us if we are getting to the essence of a story or issue.
* Too Long, Didn't Read, aka the short version