For me, I learned everything I need to know in my News Writing 103 college journalism class. This was one of those classes that everyone admitted to the journalism school had to take to earn a degree.
Try as I might, I can’t remember the teacher’s last name. But Jane was definitely the first — a woman about five feet short, with Harry Carey glasses and a nails-and-glass voice from a three-pack-a-day habit. My particular class was made famous when Jane caught a 10-year-old thief red-handed riffling through her purse in her office, located at the back of the room, while class was actually in session. Think of the irony — a bona-fide news event happening while 30 would-be news hounds had their backs turned, hunkered down at their desks, crafting their skills writing celebrity obituaries.
The lesson drilled into me during that class was to separate assumptions from facts. Everyone knows there are always two sides to every story, right? Wrong. There could be a thousand sides to a story — and only a handful would be “true.” It was an editor’s job to keep his thinking straight — and in the process do likewise for the readers.
Knowing the distinctions between facts and assumptions is the first step.
- are specific concrete statements made about events you see going on around you.
- must follow observation.
- approach certainty.
- are limited in number.
- lead to agreement.
- are ideas added to observations; guesses about the unknown.
- can be made at any time.
- have a high or low degree of probability.
- are unlimited in number.
- lead to disagreement.
People often state their assumptions thinking they are facts. Conversely, people think they can act much faster on assumptions alone without bothering with the messy task of finding out the facts first. How easily do you stray off the path? Take the following test I’ve lifted from my old college text. Read the following passage just once. Don’t take notes, and promise me you won’t look back as you respond to the statements that follow:
Jim Holmes, the research director of Southern Electronics Co., ordered a crash program to develop a new process. He gave three of his executives authority to spend up to $50,000 each without consulting him. He sent one of his best men, Ed O’Reilly, to the firm’s West Coast plant with orders to work on the new process independently. Within one week, O’Reilly produced a highly promising new approach to the problem.
Now determine whether the following statements are true or false. If you don’t believe there was enough information in the passage to determine whether a statement is true or false, then circle the ?.
1. Holmes sent one of his best men to the West Coast. T F ?
2. Holmes overestimated O’Reilly’s competence. T F ?
3. O’Reilly failed to produce anything new. T F ?
4. O’Reilly lacked authority to spend money without consulting Holmes. T F ?
5. Only three of Holmes’ executives had authority to spend money without consulting him. T F ?
6. The research director sent one of his best men to the firm’s West Coast plant. T F ?
7. Three men were given authority to spend up to $50,000 each without consulting Holmes. T F ?
8. Holmes had a high opinion of O’Reilly. T F ?
9. Only four people are referred to in the passage. T F ?
10. O’Reilly is mentioned as the research director of an electronics firm. T F ?
11. While Holmes gave authority to three of his best men to spend up to $50,000, the story does not make clear whether O’Reilly was one of these men. T F ?
1. T — That’s what the passage says.
2. ? — The story doesn’t say whether he did or not.
3. F — The story says he did produce something new.
4. ? — The story does not say whether or not O’Reilly had authority to spend money.
5. ? — The story does not say whether others besides the three mentioned had such authority.
6. T — That’s what the passage says.
7. ? — Not all executives are necessarily men.
8. ? — The story suggests this, but doesn’t state it.
9. ? — If O’Reilly is one of the three executives given authority to spend $50,000, this would be true; but the passage does not specify whether he was one of the three.
10. F — Holmes was the research director.
11. T — The story does not specify whether Holmes gave such authority to his best men.
How’d you do? Most people are lucky to get half the answers right. As you can see, it’s easy to make assumptions and act on them with all the conviction that they are the God’s honest truth.
Keep in mind, this was a written test, which at least gave you the opportunity to read between the lines. However, as long as we humans are composed of a few pounds of analytical machine wrapped around a couple hundred pounds of emotional flesh, we’ll be forever “talking” between the lines, too.
Accepting assumptions at face value is as reckless as a 4 year old with ink on his hands running amok through a garden party. Assumptions interfere with a reporter’s pursuit of the truth. But aside from such high-mindedness, assumptions made every day by your customers interfere with your ability to honestly pursue your trade.
For example, how do you react when you hear the following:
- “Oh that rusty old water heater? That came with the house when we bought it in 1953. It works just fine!”
- “Our chartreuse tub and toilet! Why everyone always compliments us on them. And besides, my brother-in-law the real estate agent says they’ll add to the resale value of the house. And that drip in the sink and leak in the toilet only wake us up once or twice a night. They work just fine!”
Do you accept such statements as facts? Many contractors assume their customers will know what’s required without their having to talk about it. And when “they don’t get it,” no one knows how to politely examine the falsehoods involved. If you can read minds and everyone can read yours, more power to you. But for the rest of us, here are some guidelines that can help separate assumptions from facts:
- Define the terms. Do your customers really like chartreuse toilets, inefficient water heaters and dripping faucets? Get in the habit of asking precisely what someone means.
Open-ended questions beginning with who, what, how, where and when are designed to acquire the information you need by opening up discussion rather than stopping communication before it even starts.
These questions serve as potent door-openers — “door openers” since they show your interest and give customers the chance to be heard and “potent” since they help people examine their own assumptions. Closed-ended questions, on the other hand, literally put people into a corner from which the only way out is to defend their ideas often to the bitter end. Discussion is cut off, freedom of response is curtailed and openness is reduced.
- Listen up. Any book concerned with how to win friends and influence people talks about the importance of listening. It’s true. Paying attention is how we pay respect both to the issue at hand and the parties involved. If all you and your debate partner are doing is waiting for a lull in the conversation so that you can lob your own brilliant wit, then the two of you aren’t conversing as much as just playing musical chairs.
Ask questions, but also paraphrase what the other person just stated.
- Think beginning-middle-end. Somewhere between I’m right and you’re wrong, between this or that, right or wrong, should or shouldn’t, black and white, yes or no, often lies the real facts of the situation. In order to challenge old assumptions, journalist use a style of questioning known as declaring questions: “How do you know that would work?” or “Why do you think so?”
- Don’t major in the minors. People often pay too much attention to meaningless things that they have been conditioned to believe are important. Often assumptions are treated as facts because people base their validity on generalization. If it’s “true” in one instance, it’s true in all. Remain objective and evaluate each idea on the individual merits rather than accepting a prejudgment from one generalization.
Continue to ask your customer such open-ended questions as “How often?” or “How much?” reduces subjectivity. Go a step further and silently ask yourself, “How important is this?” and “How much does it really matter to the issue at hand?”
Certainty is never 100 percent in any human endeavor. But it is important to be aware of how you and others make your assumptions, and how those assumptions affect how everyone interprets information.