IN mid-March 2010, I participated in Inti College’s Mass Communication Day. During the event, I was asked for the best advice I could give if someone wanted to be a successful journalist. My response was, always ask the question “How do you know?” Indeed, as an editor of a news site that aims to be accurate, fair and responsible, it’s a question I often ask my colleagues when I’m clearing their copy for publication.
I didn’t invent “How do you know?” It was, in fact, a Los Angeles Times journalist who taught me that lesson in good journalism. I can’t remember his name now but he was covering the news in the US post-9/11. He found that in order to verify information he was receiving from law enforcement officers, he needed to ask “How do you know?” It was by doing so that he discovered that a lot of the information that was passed on to him, even by the authorities, was suspect.
Sometimes the information from different people he was speaking to was all from the same source, hence he could not triangulate the information he was receiving. Or sometimes it was just information picked up from locker room chatter that was clearly unverified.
But “How do you know?” isn’t just useful for journalists and editors who want to do a good job. I reckon that as citizens, we can use the same question to navigate the daily onslaught of news, information and propaganda.
As news consumers
For example, I wonder if The Star asked that question of Datuk S Nallakaruppan when it quoted him in several news reports casting aspersions on Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s character. Apart from the fact that there is no indication that the journalist tried to get the opposition leader’s side of the story, we really don’t know how Nallakaruppan knows what he says he knows about Anwar.
In the same way, how do we know whether Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin is factually accurate when he says, “According to current records, a large portion of the nation’s wealth is in the hands of non-Malay [Malaysians]?”
After all, the Barisan Nasional (BN) government has demonstrated that it will not be challenged, not even by academic research that has been independently and soundly conducted. Additionally, instead of being transparent about how it comes to the conclusions that it does regarding ownership of the economy, the government instead resorts to name-calling and labelling. This it did rather spectacularly in the case of Dr Lim Teck Ghee’s 2006 Asli report on corporate equity distribution.
Personally, I find that asking “How does the reporter/writer know?” helps me determine the quality of the news I’m consuming. Asking that question enables me to determine whether a reporter has done enough to verify something as factual before presenting it as such.
For example, with the Los Angeles Times reporter I was privileged to meet, he discovered that oftentimes, by asking “How do you know?” he realised that the authority figures he was speaking to often didn’t know. In one instance where a cop was labelling someone a Muslim terrorist, the reporter discovered that the police officer couldn’t tell one Muhammad from another and assumed it was one and the same person.
I think the question also empowers us to be intelligent citizens. For example, how do we know if 1Malaysia isn’t just a well-conceptualised brand with the power of hype? How would we know if the current administration under Datuk Seri Najib Razak was actually sincere about treating all Malaysians equally regardless of race, religion or political affiliation?
Well, if the latest film censorship guidelines are anything to go by, we know that we shouldn’t believe all the state-funded hype about 1Malaysia. The Home Ministry guidelines stipulate that movies cannot show characters who believe that all religions are equal. The guidelines also state that movies cannot challenge any existing official fatwa.
How do I know 1Malaysia is just rhetoric? Well, the government that is trying to make us believe that all citizens are equal and diversity will be respected and cherished is also the same government that is telling us the following. Only one religion is superior, and we know which religion it is. And only one viewpoint about Islamic teachings will be accepted even if historically, and currently in other Muslim countries, fatwa are mere opinions. Indeed, it is acceptable in Islam to have a diversity of opinions or fatwa on an issue except in Malaysia, it would seem.
And so, Najib et al can wax lyrical all they want about 1Malaysia. But if the administration’s actions negate the belief that diversity should be respected and all citizens treated equally, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some Malaysians are deeply cynical about the government’s project.
In the same way, how do we know whether we can trust Pakatan Rakyat to govern more fairly and honestly than the BN? After all, wasn’t this the same coalition which promotes party hopping when that suits its agenda, only to cry foul when it doesn’t?
“How do I know?” is also useful in human relationships. For example, “How do I know my parents love me despite the disagreements we may have?” I know because my mum constantly asks me if I have eaten and my dad worked selflessly to ensure I could go to university. That’s how I know.
Asking this question, I found out recently, is also one of the best practices in Neuro-Linguistic Programming that is used to achieve goals and excellence. Asking the question allows us to seek evidence about something that is happening or not happening. And by having evidence instead of assumptions based on generalisations or distortions, we communicate better and are more able to achieve the outcomes we want for ourselves, our businesses and our relationships.
And it is also by having evidence that journalists become good, even great, journalists. And citizens can become less gullible and pliable, and more engaged and empowered in a democracy.
Jacqueline Ann Surin finds that asking “How do you know?” is an effective way of stopping gossipers in their tracks.
Read previous Shape of a Pocket columns
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