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After thinking about a story idea more carefully, you must turn these initial thoughts into a specific hypothesis or question that your story can answer. A hypothesis or question – short or long, one sentence or two sentences – helps you to decide what evidence will be relevant and what constitutes proof. Additionally:

  • !   It will make the work manageable by providing boundaries and goals.
  • !   It assists in communicating and ‘selling’ the idea to others.
  • !   It allows you to budget time and resources more accurately.
  • !   It provides criteria of relevance for collecting evidence.
  • !   It lays the foundation for a coherent final story.

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

(A) Privatisation has made buying water too expensive for the poor, so they draw water from unhealthy 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 are you certain of the validity of the assumptions? 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 plant is careless about standards. You may actually need to look at both possibilities because both 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 developed a clearly defined hypothesis, you need to create a research plan, including finding sources, developing criteria of proof, deciding on a 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.