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Coming up with a hypothesis

Coming up with hypotheses is one of the investigative journalist’s most important mental and organizational tools. The hypothesis is critical to how an investigation proceeds. And because of how critical it is, it cannot simply be cooked up out of nowhere. It must have a solid grounding in carefully acquired facts and draw on preliminary research showing that there is a story worth writing. A hypothesis is made up of facts and assumptions. Facts here means solid, corroborated and carefully documented information, while assumptions means information that is yet to be corroborated, which the journalist works to prove or disprove.
Investigative journalism, like science, is about coming up with hypotheses, testing them, and trying to prove them. The best examples of investigative journalism are rooted in a hypothesis that allows them to work out what happened, how it happened, and why it happened. In investigative journalism, a hypothesis is a proposed explanation that assesses a problem or issue in order to establish the truth of what happened by making connections between the facts even if those facts are not yet entirely verified. It provides provisional answers on how an event might be connected to an actor (a perpetrator) and its victim and how big the problem might be. These are the basic elements of a hypothesis.
Hypotheses are important because:
• They make it easier to collect data, gather and organize new facts and evidence, and analyses it.
• They help us keep control of the investigation and manage it effectively
• They help test the easiest and best methodology for establishing a hypothesis
• They help us to focus and be precise and to establish the boundaries and goals of the investigation.
• They help us to more closely understand the issue that we are researching
• They help us to come up with solutions in the event that problems arise
• They are the cornerstone of a fully integrated investigation
• They help us to market the idea to others
• They help us to set budgets and keep a tighter hold on time and resources
• They help us to establish the sources of the investigation
A hypothesis has the following characteristics:
• It can be tested.
• It is based on established and documented facts as well as uncorroborated information (assumptions).
• It is concise.
• It is coherent and based on facts that the journalist is looking to gather as well as information they already have
• It deals with a single problem
Despite the centrality of the hypothesis to the investigative process, it can always be amended if new evidence and facts require. A good journalist should always be open to evidence that contradicts their hypothesis and work just as hard to disprove the hypothesis as to prove it – that is, they should make just as much effort to find evidence contradicting it as they do to find evidence supporting it. The hypothesis is not an end in itself but a means of getting to the truth. Let’s return to the example of road accidents in Country X. Our journalist has conducted her initial investigation, and is now categorizing the data and assumptions she has come up with:
1: Facts
• According to official reports that she has found, ten main roads in Country X – all built between 2015 and 2019 – do not meet technical specifications.
• Technical reports and mapping of seventy different accidents on these roads between 2015 and 2019 show that engineering defects were the main reason in those accidents.
• There are twenty coroners’ reports showing deaths resulting from these accidents.
• There are fifteen medical reports showing injuries resulting from these accidents.

2: Data and information
• All tendering information on the construction of those roads, published in dailies and relevant websites.
• Our journalist has conducted interviews with experts and specialists who confirm that there are roads that do not meet the established technical standards. They say that the oversight committee takes money and gifts from contractors, and give plenty of examples – but no real evidence.
• All the annual reports of Country X’s Traffic Authority issued from 2015 to 2019.
• All the annual reports of the engineering bodies responsible for the construction of those roads during the same period.
• The names of all those responsible at the oversight committee.
• All the names of companies that won road construction tenders and the names of their owners and employees during this period.
• All the news items relevant to the roads, categorised by timeframe and information.
• Technical plans for the roads provided in the tendering documents before construction began.
• Construction and infrastructure legislation.

3: Assumptions
• The oversight committee is colluding with contractors.
• The committee receives money and gifts from contractors. In exchange, they turn a blind eye to problems with the roads.
• The contractors change the plans agreed on in contracts concluded with the government, without any justification, in order to cut costs.
• Contractors cut corners on construction in order to save money.
• The laws that regulate public infrastructure projects include loopholes that allow contracts to be circumvented.
• There are serious shortcomings in government oversight of roads. There is both abuse of office and neglect taking place. Our journalist then takes all of these points together and formulates the following hypothesis:
“There are injuries and deaths on the motorways in Country X because of construction defects caused by contractors cutting corners. The government committee responsible for oversight is colluding with the contractors.” This hypothesis is clearly based on the preliminary research and the information and data that it has provided. It is concise, coherent and consists of one or two sentences. It breaks down into a number of central points, and each of these points produces a series of questions, each of which can be answered by a source or sources (whether human or documentary).
This allows our journalist to produce a clear and specific hypothesis which can be tested and proved or disproved. Note that she has looked at open sources. She has inspected the roads herself by looking at official reports and speaking to experts. She has contacted human sources. The key to all this was generating a series of questions through an organised brainstorming exercise, questions she then tried to find answers for.
The hypothesis shows the links between the event, the agent and the victim. It provides a provisional answer to the problem that our journalist wants to investigate. We can break it down into its central elements as follows:
• Two events. Firstly, contractors are cutting corners when building roads. Secondly, the government committee responsible for oversight is colluding with the contractors.
• Two actors. The contractors and the committee.
• The victim. Those killed and injured and their families. Also, the public purse, which is the common property of everyone. A hypothesis may involve one or more actors. It may also involve a single main event with several subsequent events. The same applies to victims.

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