What do we mean by “evidence-based journalism”?

By Jimmy Wales

One of my core principles for WikiTribune is “evidence-based journalism”. But what does that actually mean? Surely all decent reporting is based on evidence?

In my view, the mainstream media has become too opinionated, and unwilling to follow the principle of showing their work. If their sources are solid and the evidence is strong, why can’t we see for ourselves?

How often do we see phrases like this in the news?

  • “Experts claim”
  • “Studies show”
  • “Top officials say”
  • “According to a person familiar with the matter”

On Wikipedia, people call these “weasel words” because they weasel out of telling you the unadorned truth. These kinds of formulations are misleading, and I believe they should be avoided wherever possible.

There are exceptions, of course, where showing our work in full isn’t possible. Anonymous sourcing is a valid technique when dealing with whistleblowers or sources who need to be protected. But let’s be honest: it’s rarely for that reason. And when it is, the reader should be told exactly why.

Why does this kind of wording matter?

You’d be surprised how often a “source” is actually an official of the administration, floating a trial balloon to see how the public reacts to a particular policy or idea before claiming credit for it. Then, of course, if it goes down like it’s made of lead, the idea can quietly be scrapped and no one can pin it on its “source.”

Furthermore, this reporting technique leads to an awkward back-and-forth “he said, she said” narrative in the press. One side — at substantial personal cost — is putting their name and reputation behind something, and someone in power is denying it — anonymously.

In a case like this, the press is wasting the power they have.

If someone is — by name and with their reputation at stake — criticising you, then the penalty for not clearly rebutting on the record should be that your side simply isn’t heard. I believe if the press forces this issue systematically, we will be doing our job of holding power to account.

What does evidence-based journalism look like?

Let’s say we call someone up to get a quote on a hot-button issue. We have a 15-minute phone conversation and we use a section of it in an article about the issue.

How do you know whether the quote was fairly reported, or taken out of context? By checking the source. Wherever we can, we’ll publish the entire conversation — audio and transcript — so you can check exactly what was asked, what was said, and even in what tone. This helps enormously with understanding what a source — who may not be media-trained— was trying to communicate.

Too often, it isn’t clear that the press is fairly saying that someone “said X”
when in fact they “joked X”. Or said something that sounded like X, but was actually Y.

Will people be willing to talk to us if we’re publishing the entire transcript?

We’ve already carried out some interviews for the upcoming WikiTribune site, and so far, everyone’s been more than willing to be recorded and transcribed. It’s good for them, because they can’t be misquoted, and they get to set the record straight even if we don’t quote the entirety of what they said.

This isn’t about engaging in “gotcha” journalism. We’re not trying to make people look bad, or afraid to talk to us. We’re saying: look, go on the
record, and we’ll include the FULL context and nuance, or as much as you’ll allow us. We aren’t trying to trap people in minor misstatements, but rather to give them the chance to put their thoughts on record in a meaningful way.

That’s better for them, it’s better for us, and it’s better for you. It might not make for the most clickbaity headlines, but that’s not what we’re about anyway.