Methods to evaluate stories

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In two days, we will observe both Thanksgiving, and the fifty-fifty anniversary of Jack Kennedy’s death. Not so many people remember the day he died. Interestingly, the questions that came after this big event were not so different from those that followed the big event of our time, 9/11. People wanted to know the same things. What exactly happened? How did it happen, and why? Who committed the crime, and who is responsible for it? What stories should we believe? What should we do now?

I would like to write about evaluation of stories tonight. A common chain of moral causation affects how we undertake these evaluations. You can observe this chain not only in the United States, but everywhere. When governments operate in secrecy, trust in government goes down. Rumors circulate about what government is up to. A rumor is ‘a currently circulating story, a report of uncertain or doubtful truth.’ Journalists have given themselves the job of determining which rumors are true, which are not, and which are partially true. We used to accept their role as self-appointed evaluators.

When governments operate in secrecy, trust in government goes down.

This job tends to be frustrating for them, as certain segments of the population – call them skeptics – do not trust journalists any more than they trust government. In fact, distrust in government and distrust in journalists tend to be highly correlated. Skeptics do not care to hand the job of evaluation over to anyone. Thus you have a number of people who have to develop methods their own methods, as numerous stories call upon our attention. Unlike journalists, the rest of us do not receive pay to evaluate information.

Let’s consider some of the most obvious methods:

  • Ignore most stories, to concentrate on the most important.
  • Do not give any story benefit of the doubt.
  • Evaluate only stories that have circulated for a long time.
  • Gather information only from sources you trust; know why you trust or distrust a source.
  • Develop sound methods to evaluate sources that originate stories, retell them, and elaborate on them.
  • Discredit information from sources that routinely conceal information.

You could formalize these points as a sort of rumor triage, or flow chart, if you don’t like the medical comparison. Also, let’s stick with the word stories, as rumors carry a potent whiff of falsehood even before they begin to circulate. Preliminary judgments about stories determine how much time we spend with them down the line.

  • Ignore stories you are not interested in, or that appear insignificant, whether they appear true or false on a first look.
  • For stories you are interested in, decide whether they need to ripen. As stories ripen, they gain substance, while investigators add information and analysis.
  • For substantive stories that hold your interest, become more self-conscious about the beliefs or assumptions you bring to the story. Determine what you need to know to evaluate it.
  • Maintain some commitment to stories that meet your high standards of substance, and that reward your inquiries with interesting information. Postpone investigations that yield poor quality information.
  • Ask hypothetical questions to guide inquiry.
  • Constantly evaluate your sources.

Remember that after big events, the questions we ask, and the stories we tell all require evaluation. Nothing we say immediately after a crime benefits from analysis or careful thought. Long after the event, memories fade. So you want time to think, but not time to forget. Above all, do not purposely forget. Do not let other people make you forget. Both processes – intentional erasure and social amnesia – set you adrift.


Related article

Championing Truth and Justice: Griffin on 9/11, by Tod Fletcher