Why reporters shouldn't make predictions

Posted by Ewen MacAskill

One of the first rules for reporters should be ‘Don’t Make Predictions’. It is popular at the start of a new year for journalists to write about the year ahead. Opinion-writers regularly do this. But it is foolish for reporters to do it.

Reporters rely on their credibility. If their predictions prove right, few will remember. If they get it wrong, many will remember and remind them later.

It is not the job of reporters to make predictions. They can quote someone predicting, say, the imminent fall of a government, but best not do it themselves. I confidently told friends and colleagues that Americans would not vote Donald Trump into the White House – but I happily never wrote this. 

Making predictions about journalism can be even more foolish, given the the speed of technological change. Social media, smartphones and a host of other changes over the last two decades have upended the news business. Few saw it coming. And the speed of change is accelerating. Major news organisations around the world are already grappling with the impact of artificial intelligence. Are robots likely to be  analysing and writing the news any time soon?

"Are robots likely to be analysing and writing the news any time soon?"

Ewen MacAskill, Journalism Now expert


There are some predictions that look like safe bets. Thomson Foundation colleagues have written about the improvements in mobile journalism, in smartphones, in picture quality, sound and ease of editing, and social media.

There are other predictions that seem safe too, such as the continued decline in newspapers. But while this decline has been rapid in the US and Europe, newspaper readerships are still high in much of Asia.

A comprehensive exploration of likely changes in the year ahead is provided by Nic Newman of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, based on a survey of editors and digital managers across the world. In it, he looks at fake news, the prospects for regulation of companies such as Facebook and ways to fund journalism. 

While the way stories are gathered, told and consumed are changing fast, what has not changed is the basic story itself. There are stories that are told well and stories that are told badly. There are stories that are 100 per cent accurate, as all stories should be, and stories that are factually inaccurate or biased.

"Reporters can work in the year ahead in rebuilding public trust and that means better reporting."

Ewen MacAskill

While social media has given the public a voice, the downside is the rise in distrust of professional journalism and the spread of disinformation. Journalists can counter this through better reporting. And one of the best ways of doing this is through greater transparency, being more open about sources of information.  

Academics diligently provide footnotes identifying the source of each fact cited. Reporters can do the same by pasting links in their stories. Many journalists already do this but they could do a lot more. Readers like links. Reporters could also help build trust by avoiding, except in rare circumstances, the use of anonymous quotes.

Reporters can work in the year ahead in rebuilding public trust and that means better reporting. So I hope you will join me inside the Journalism Now community this year so we can explore together how to become better reporters.


For more details on Journalism Now, and how to access courses and apply to enter the community, please visit the Journalism Now homepage.




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Ewen MacAskill

Ewen MacAskill

Investigative journalism

Ewen MacAskill is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former defence and intelligence correspondent for The Guardian who acts as a mentor for Thomson Foundation trainees.

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