An Intelligencer's Guide to: Asking the Right Questions
Updated: Aug 21, 2021
Many of us rely on the media to keep us informed. The problem I increasingly find is that much of what we are told or read contains less 'fact' and a disproportionate amount of opinion and speculation. Even allowing for the pressures of breaking the story first, or at least not being left behind by their competitors, it seems that the standards of journalism in broadcast, print and social media are becoming increasingly mediocre. Being honest, I do not know what is taught on journalism courses, but I do know how I was taught to investigate things, to gather information, and to keep asking the right questions. With that in mind, whether you are an experienced journalist, a student, a researcher, or someone passionate for finding out information, what follows is a guide to asking the six questions for critical thinking.
When listening to or reading some journalists' reports, I am not fully convinced that they are asking the basic questions to elicit all the facts. Now I completely appreciate that when a story breaks the initial information can be limited and often confused. Moreover, if first responders are busy dealing with an incident, then answering a journalist's questions is the last thing they need. As the situation develops, however, more information will become available, although even this can be withheld for legal or security reasons. The [pseudo] pressure to break the story first often means journalists will resort to eyewitness accounts, which are often unreliable, to add weight to their report. Of course, if all else fails, reporters might speculate on what they think is happening, or has happened. The latter creates a real problem, however, as journalists rarely caveat their opinions. Rather they tend to weave their thoughts or beliefs into the narrative thus making it harder for the critical thinker to separate fact from 'fiction'. Perhaps more worryingly, journalists rarely admit that they do not know what is going on. Much better, it seems, to be repetitious or to waffle around the subject.
To give you an example, please indulge an anecdotal 'war story'. At one point during the coalition invasion of Iraq in April 2003 the news media were broadcasting that US forces were facing strong resistance around Saddam International Airport in Baghdad. So much so, according to the reporters, that US troops had been stopped from seizing and securing the airfield. At precisely the same time as one journalist delivered these 'facts' on camera, with an assumed air of authority to a hungry audience back home, elements of the 1st Brigade of the US 3rd Infantry Division were actually sitting in the middle of the airport's main runway. Clearly the embedded reporters were not up-to-date (and nor could they hope to be given the dynamic, fast-paced nature of modern warfare) but, armed with only part of the story, they set about broadcasting their less than positive narrative. After all, bad news sells.
The point of this story is not to ridicule the reporters but simply to highlight that what we see, hear or read may not always be the full picture. Not only should journalists actively seek answers to file accurate and complete reports, but so should anyone researching or investigating pretty much anything else. To achieve a better understanding of a subject there are six questions for critical thinking: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How?
Who? The first question establishes who is involved or who said what. Knowing who the players are in any narrative is a good base-line for understanding. Once we know who, then we can ask follow up questions to determine the reliability of the source and their information. Do you know them? Familiarity allows a better assessment of the truth or not of what is being reported. What is the position of the source, and what is influencing them? Are they someone with authority? Specialists ought to be more reliable commentators in their field of expertise than a generalist, a specialist from a different albeit related field , or a layman. Is a Chief Constable a more reliable source on policing matters than, say, a Home Secretary who has no background in law enforcement? Admittedly the former is key to advising the latter, but I think you get the point.
What? What happened? What did the source say? Did they present facts or opinions? Did they give all the facts? Did they leave anything out? What am I not seeing? Is there anything important missing? In evaluating the information, what other ideas or views exist? What other possible explanations are there that might contradict the evidence presented?
Where? Where did something happen? Close to home or further afield? Did events transpire somewhere you are familiar with? Where was the source when they offered the information? Was it in public or in private? Was it targeted at a particular audience? In media reporting, was the report balanced? Did other people have a chance to talk about the other side?
When? When did the event happen? When did the source report the information? Was it before, during or after an event? The "Why?" question enables you to determine whether the source was a contemporary witness or whether they are distant from events in time. Many ancient sources, for example, construct their histories several years after the events being reported on. For the critical thinker, the reliability of such reporters is immediately questionable.
Why? Why is a piece of information important? Ask yourself why is it significant, and whether you agree or disagree. 'Why?' also allows you to question the source's motivation. Why did they say or write something? Did the source explain their opinions or inducements? Were they trying to make someone or something look good or bad? Why are they reporting this information now?
How? How did something happen? What was the context? How did the source report it? Were they happy, sad, angry or did not care? How was the report communicated? Whether it was spoken or written, could you understand it? Information, particularly from ancient sources, is rarely written in modern English. This raises questions on the accuracy of any translation or interpretation. Always ask yourself where a piece of information came from and how it was constructed.
The above explanations should not be thought of as exhaustive. Each of us can probably think of many more fallout questions. But, by continually asking these six questions, not necessarily in any strict order, the critical thinker is aided in gathering all the pertinent information. The answers, or lack thereof, will reveal what is both known and unknown, and can stimulate further lines of enquiry. Importantly, these six questions enable you to establish the reliability of the source and the credibility of the information. In the intelligence world, such assessments are given a grading so that any individual can have confidence in the source and the information presented. How that works is a subject covered separately.
It is the reporter's responsibility to ensure that uncertainty is conveyed to the audience, and the critical thinker's responsibility to ensure they understand the uncertainty. Comments, opinions and supposition should be clearly labelled as such to avoid ambiguity. Both should abstain from hindsight analysis, as it is always easier to deliver accurate 'intelligence' if you know the actual answer . So, the next time you are reading a newspaper article or something on social media, watching or listening to a news report on the television or radio, keep those six questions in mind. If the reporter, whether they are a journalist, historian or someone else, fails to answer the basic questions, or is asserting uncorroborated facts without context or explanation, ask yourself why?
1. Stanlick, N.A.; Strawser, M.J, (2015), Asking Good Questions: Case Studies in Ethics and Critical Thinking, Hackett Publishing, Indianapolis, p. 6.
2. Chiarini, A.; Found, P; Rich, N. (2015), Understanding the Lean Enterprise: Strategies, Methodologies, and Principles for a More Responsive Organization, Springer, Cham, p. 132.
3. A Roman historian, for example, should be able to speak with more authority on the ancient Romans than someone who specialises, say, on Tudor England (and vice versa).
4. Joint Doctrine Publication (JDP) 2-00, 'Understanding and Intelligence Support to Joint Operations', Chapter 3, Section IV, paragraph 331.
5. Ibid., paragraph 337.