Be a cautious skeptic — especially now
Look no further than the rash of stories about creepy clown sightings around the country to understand how important it is to be a healthy skeptic. The topic of healthy skepticism is timely, with good reason.
Journalists get paid to ask questions, and the aim has always been to ask the right questions to get the right answers before readers ask those same questions. Our job is to educate, enlighten and inform.
In today’s world of easy and timely access to news and information of all kinds, it’s no surprise that readers are getting to ask questions in real time. That means journalists have to keep ahead of every story even more now than ever.
That’s difficult to do, especially in context of a story such as the clowns, which seems to be a messy mix of half-truths, outright falsehoods, urban legend and repurposed pictures.
Coverage has varied: tips about how not to dress for Halloween; what to do if confronted by a costumed clown; the genesis of creepy clowns; and maps showing sightings around the country.
Where does healthy skepticism fit in? It’s our job as journalists to question the veracity of every story about every sighting in every place. A good start is with some key bullet points we attribute to now-retired Reid MacCluggage, who began his career at the Hartford Courant, and who created a list of ways to develop a healthy skeptical habit:
- Challenge conventional wisdom
- Distrust unanimity
- When there’s a push to get stories published right away, take a second look
- Watch language. When stories report “surges” or “trends” or “waves” or “epidemics,” be especially careful. Check it out.
- If a story bothers you, stop and think about why it bothers you. Don’t let it be published until you feel right about it. Your gut instinct often gives you the best advice. Take it.
- Question stories you can’t check out in time for deadline
- Question stories everyone in the newsroom thinks are terrific
- Question the herd instinct
No one likes to be fooled. Journalists, especially, don’t want to inadvertently fool the audience with stories published haphazardly.
That’s why we purposely have not included photos of clowns or links to clown stories in this post. We don’t want to pass along what we cannot verify. But we invite you to check them out — either stories happening in your area or happening elsewhere.
Apply MacCluggage’s tips as you read. And then take care with your own “publish” button before you tweet, post or share. Be a healthy skeptic. Your audience will thank you.