Journalism 101

Lauryn Oates points out that the TES reported the Taliban had gone all sweet and cuddly on girls’ education, while absent-mindedly also reporting that it had that on hearsay.

The only person quoted in the story was Afghan Education Minister Farooq Wardak, who reported, “What I am hearing at the very upper policy level of the Taliban is that they are no more opposing education and also girls’ education.”

No confirmation from the Taliban itself was provided in the story, or since.

Oh. Which, in basic beginners’ journalism, or basic beginners’ epistemology, or courts of law, or historiography, is Not Good Enough. NPR re-learned this just recently after it reported that Gabrielle Giffords had been shot and killed, based on a single source in the Pima County sheriff’s office.

With 10 minutes to spare, Newscast producer Diane Waugh began scrambling to get the story on air – if NPR could get a second source. As is common in newsrooms, NPR has a two-source rule, requiring two, reliable and independent confirmations before news is reported. Three is even better.

Relying on just one source – especially an anonymous one – can often lead to false or misleading reports in fast-breaking news.  One danger, for example, is one source getting its information from another source.

And yet…

The same day, the BBC picked up the story, using the headline, “Afghan Taliban ‘end’ opposition to educating girls,” while their counterparts at The Telegraph ran a story headlined, “Taliban ‘abandons’ opposition to girls’ education.”

The story quickly spread from the U.K. to around the world.

From one story reporting one source who was reporting hearsay.

And in this particular case, there is a lot at stake.

This afternoon, I watched dozens of girls fixated on their teacher in a dilapidated mud building that serves as a school in a poverty-stricken neighbourhood of north Kabul. Clutching their notebooks, they furiously recorded what the teacher lectured. There were no desks, chairs, or central heating as the grey, frigid winter prevails over Kabul. But there is nowhere else in the world they would rather be.

Their parents are poor, and school, even one like this, is a hard-earned luxury.

Education is a right that has not come easily for these kids. We shouldn’t be so quick to bid it away, leaping enthusiastically at a far-fetched rumour that the Taliban promise to be a little less demonic toward little girls who would do anything to be in a classroom.

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