1.1. From an idea to a hypothesis

You must next turn your initial thoughts into a specific question your story can answer. This helps you:

  • ! Decide what constitutes proof, and what evidence is relevant
  • ! Make work manageable by defining boundaries and goals
  • ! Communicate and ‘sell’ the idea to others
  • ! Budget time and resources more accurately
  • ! Lay the foundation for a solid story

Each story idea can generate multiple hypotheses or directions for the final story. For example, there can be two hypotheses for the water-borne disease story:

(A) Privatisation has made buying water too expensive for the poor, so they draw water from unhealthy but free sources, leading to an epidemic.

(B) Private water companies are cutting corners, and standards of water safety are falling, leading to an epidemic.

But you need to evaluate these hypotheses critically: What assumptions do they rest on, and how certain are you of their validity? Both these hypotheses rest on untested assumptions about the source of the epidemic: (A) assumes that ‘unofficial’ water supplies are at fault; (B) assumes that the water company is careless about standards. You may actually need to look at both possibilities because these hypotheses rest on a deeper question: Where did the epidemic start?

A far better hypothesis would therefore be:

(C) The recent epidemic of water-borne disease in X municipality either originated from the privatised water supply or from unofficial water sources.

This refined hypothesis allows you to go back to your story outline, and tailor an investigation  that is clearer and balanced:

(D) There has just been a major epidemic of water-borne diarrhoea in X municipality, where water is privatised. This story will try to find out how that epidemic started. Was it because people cannot afford to buy private water and are using polluted streams and wells instead? Or was it because the private water company has dropped standards of purity at its plant to cut costs? We will talk to scientists about the causes of the epidemic. We will follow members of a poor community on their daily search for water and visit the plant with an independent expert to look at their safety standards. When we have established how the disease got started, we will look at what needs to be done to prevent a recurrence.

Once you have a clearly defined hypothesis, you need to create a research plan, including

  • > finding sources
  • > developing criteria of proof
  • > deciding on methodology
  • > creating a timeline and
  • > developing a budget.

The following sections of this chapter will provide an overview of how these steps are planned. The upcoming chapters of this guide will then provide a detailed look at how each of these steps is executed.

At the end you should be able to sum up your story with a concise and punchy working headline. This may not be the headline the story ends up with, but it is a good way to help you hold on to the focus of the story. It will also help you pitching the story and may even help to think creatively about how the story can be presented by a news organisation. Of course, you should modify it as you find out more.