Context Required: How to Tell if Something is True

A monthly column focusing on research, data and context in journalism.

WASHINGTON — A little more than a year ago, Global Press senior reporter Lucila Pellettieri turned in a story about a group of indigenous communities in northern Argentina that had taken control of the local mining sector. The communities aren’t doing the mining themselves, but they have created a system in which mining companies must submit their project proposals for the communities’ approval before the government can grant mining concessions.

As a result, at least one company was barred, at least for the time being, from drilling for lithium beneath an enormous salt flat. (Read the story here.)

Lucila’s work differed dramatically from what a major news agency reported from the same region at about the same time. That piece, published in The Washington Post, told a more familiar story: A small, powerless indigenous village fell prey to a large, wealthy mining company that destroyed the environment and left local people with nothing.

The reporter, an American, was tightly focused on a group of communities just a few miles from where Lucila found her story. But the Post’s story lacked context. The reporter missed the more groundbreaking story that was happening just down the road.

The Post’s story wasn’t false. Each sentence was accurate. But without context, can a story be true?

Here’s a common scenario: A reporter discovers academic research concluding that indigenous communities in northern Argentina are being crushed under the weight of wealthy mining companies. The reporter pitches a story to an editor. A budget is set, a travel plan is made and the reporter lands in a community named in the research. The reporter works under given time constraints, and the editor expects a certain type of story.

To report the reality on the ground, especially when that reality differs from what research suggests, it often takes more time and more money.

Journalists who write about places far from where they live often rely heavily on data collected by expert researchers. For example, there’s no shortage of research on the negative impacts that mining has had on small communities in northern Argentina.

That data, while likely correct for a certain place, time or individual, is often applied broadly and used to define vast swaths of land or experience, regardless of whether that’s what the researcher intended. For example, a researcher might survey people in rural communities in Nepal about their access to health care. That limited data, representing the experiences of, at most, a few thousand people, is published and, sometimes, assumptions are made that the data reflect an entire region or even a country.

When that generalized data is the basis for a news story, a place or community is portrayed without context at best and inaccurately at worst.

This year, I’ll be writing in this space about the intersection of research, data and journalism.  Global Press Journal has always hired journalists who live in and are from the communities they cover. In the coming months, those journalists will also begin collecting data to create a more accurate, context-rich basis for their own work. The entire Global Press team will continue to examine how data, assumptions and isolated incidents define people and places. Here, I’ll share with you our experiences and progress.

In the meantime, I’ll rely on you to tell me more about what you’re seeing and thinking. Do you have ideas for how we can more accurately report on the world? Get in touch! Send an email to [email protected].