Reporters have to start out with some idea of what the story is before they set out to interview, research and report. But can't having too strong an idea of what's news be an impediment to the truth? We wanted to find out, so we made a hypothesis of our own and set out the prove it.

Our Hypothesis
Every story starts with a hypothesis. However, it is dangerous for a reporter to approach a story with too strong of a hypothesis.

By examining two case studies, we will prove our thesis by looking at the ethical and legal implications of having a hypothesis.

A supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation. A responsible journalist should not set out to prove the hypothesis, but rather, test its validity.

The Anti-Hypothesis View
"The truth-seeking reporter...if he is operating correctly, has no predetermined ends to seek, no hypotheses to prove, just the truth to be determined."
Curtis MacDougall, Interpretive Journalism.

This perspective is more suitable for daily hard news reporting. On the hand, investigative reporting always starts with an initial hypothesis.

Journalistic Principles—some guidance on how to not fall victim to a hypothesis

1. Don’t fall in love with the story

“Like the scientist, the journalist starts with a hypothesis—the premise that, if true, would result in a newsworthy story. Then, like the scientist who performs experiments to prove or disprove the hypothesis the journalist gathers facts and dispassionately tests the premise. Neither the scientist nor the journalist is vested in proving the hypothesis. Instead the goal of both is to “seek truth” (Foreman, 2010, p. 188).

2. Don’t frame your story to support your theory

“Framing is the term that journalists use to define or interpret events that they report on... Thomas Patterson and Philip Seib write: ‘A news story would be a buzzing jumble of facts if journalists did not impose meaning on it. At the same time, it is the frame, as much as the event or development itself, which affects how the citizen will interpret and respond to news developments.’

“Obviously, selecting a frame is highly subjective, and journalists should be alert to two traps—first, allowing their opinions to get in the way, and second, choosing a frame solely on the basis of audience appeal” (Foreman, 2010, p. 193).

The Extreme Example: Michael Finkel's The New York Times article

The extreme example of a reporter trying to form a story to a hypothesis looked like this

Finkel said "One writer described my actions as 'sleazy,' 'arrogant,' 'offensive,' and 'pernicious,' and then concluded that people like me should 'burn in Journalism Hell.'
That is a quote by Michael Finkel, from his book True Story, where he describes the article that ended in his firing from the New York Times. In Finkel’s words, this is what happened...If you choose to believe him.

So what happened? How did Finkel fall victim to his hypothesis? He explains in his book, True Story. Here are some relevant excerpts.

The Assignment
“The story that resulted in my firing from the New York Times was supposed to be about child slavery and chocolate. It was assigned by the magazine’s editors, who mailed me a package of materials from a London-based humanitarian agency called Anti-Slavery International... The film explained that about half the world’s cocoa beans—the primary ingredient in chocolate—are grown on plantations in the central valleys of the Ivory Coast, in West Africa... It was a powerful and haunting film, probing what was clearly a important topic” (Finkel, 2005, p. 10-11).

The Research
“After three weeks in Africa, I realized I had my story. If you listened to certain members of the Malian Association and took notes and tilted your head just so—well, yes, there was slavery. West Africa is a very poor part of the world; if journalists were willing to pay good money to see slaves, it seemed as though some officials with the Malian Association were more than happy to provide them.

“But I wanted to write about the real problem: I wanted to write about the crushing cycle of poverty, and about the suffering that young people were willing to endure in order to eke out a living. At the same time, I wanted to explain how the media can generate misunderstandings, and how aid agencies can perpetuate these errors. I wanted to demonstrate how we can sometimes see what we’re looking for instead of what really exists. That wasn’t the story I came to find, and it wasn’t a particularly explosive one, but it felt important in its own quite way. So I packed my belongings and flew home” (Finkel, 2005, p. 34)

The Editor
“I described the idea to Ilena Silverman, my editor at the New York Times Magazine. I was excited about its prospects; it had the potential, I thought, to be an intelligent, insightful, unorthodox article. Silverman, though, said she wasn’t particularly interested in yet another story accusing the media of getting everything wrong. She didn’t want a piece that might unfairly harm humanitarian agencies. Instead, she suggested that I present all of these issues more palatably, perhaps by telling a detailed story of one boy... ‘Could you do that?’ she asked me” (Finkel, 2005, p. 34-35).

The Decision
“I had spent almost all my time in Africa attempting to prove that the story I’d been sent to cover did not exist... [My editor’s] idea, the tale of one boy, seemed less complicated than mine, and possibly more profound.

“Except that I had just flown seven time zones from West Africa prepared to write one story, and now I was being asked to work on a very different one, using the same material. There was some part of me that knew, right then, that I could not fulfill my editor’s request. I should have said so immediately. But I sensed that my success of a writer was almost solely in Silverman’s hands, and I felt a powerful need to please her...

“So I began to rationalize. With all the interviews I’d done... I figured there had to be one boy who would work. Or, failing that, I could follow what Lavender Degre at UNICEF had said: If someone wants to see a slave, show her a slave.

“Could I write a story about one boy? I told my editor I could” (Finkel, 2005, p. 35).

Considering Finkel’s cautionary story, we looked at the Society for Professional Journalists’ code of ethics to see what they suggest in relation to approaching a story with a strong hypothesis.

The Society for Professional Journalists’ Ethics Code and Hypothesis

1. Seek truth and report it
The ultimate goal should be to find the truth—not to prove what the journalist wants or even suspects.
  • Test the accuracy of information received. This applies to all sources.
  • Give the subject of news stories a chance to speak and respond to allegations.
  • Do not misrepresent the story using headlines, pictures or other material out of context.
  • Be willing to tell tough stories.
  • Do not let personal values colour your story or approach.
  • Do not stereotype: race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.
  • Respect official and unofficial news sources and their potential validity.
  • Distinguish between advocacy, analysis, commentary and news reporting.

2. Minimize Harm
This is all the more reason to be careful about approaching a story with a strong hypothesis in mind. Realize that your story has the potential to significantly impact other people. Be especially careful when there are implications for children or inexperienced news sources or subjects.

3. Act Independently
Journalists must avoid conflicts of interest, both real and perceived. By approaching a story with a strong hypothesis, you are automatically setting up a potential conflict of interest within yourself.

4. Be accountable: Allow the public to hold you accountable for your stories. Do not set yourself up so they can accuse you of approaching the story from a biased viewpoint. Admit any mistakes promptly.

Kevin Donovan, on how to have a hypothesis while being a responsible journalist

So how do you tell difficult types of stories effectively? Consider stories that look at problematic charities. On one hand: the public has a right to the truth and should know where their money is going. On the other: there are serious implications for people and organizations. You do not want to misrepresent the problem and paint everyone with the same brush. With Finkel’s example of what can happen when a reporter has too strong a hypothesis, our group wanted to speak to a journalist who has proven his/her ability to have a hypothesis but not fall into some of the traps we’ve outlined.

We contacted Kevin Donovan, the editor of the investigative team at the Toronto Star and long time investigative reporter. Some of Donovan’s biggest stories include exposing the link between ex-MP Rahim Jaffer and an alleged conman, and shedding light on charities with questionable fundraising practices, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Heart and Stroke Foundation.
We agreed that, while any journalist can have a hypothesis heading into a story, investigative journalists arguably must have the strongest. It’s the job of an investigative journalist to dig and probe at an issue, and he or she must have some idea of what they’re looking for from the beginning. We wanted to know how investigative reporters can succeed without letting an angle cloud their vision.
We also wanted to speak to Donovan about the Star’s recent charity scam series, Give and Take. In order to do such a series, one would have to assume that many charities were corrupt and should be exposed. How did he go about doing that story fairly when starting from a position of suspicion?
Watch this video for his answer.

Some of Donovan’s salient points:
  • You always have to have an idea, but don't be married to it: "You'll have a hypothesis but it could completely turn on its head."
  • Don't be afraid to ditch it and idea. Donocan spent three months one story and wound up spiking it: "We'll back right up on a story, there's lots of stories out there."
  • He goes to the source first. "If they talk to you right away, there’s a possibility there might not be a story." He also asks around to other people to get their sense of what the story is. This gets him out of his own conception of the story.
  • Always asks, are we being fair? Give them every opportunity to respond.

Charities lawyer Mark Blumberg also had thoughts on Donovan's coverage:
  • Reporting negative issues surrounding charitable sector will diminish public confidence in fundraising, groups say.
  • Reporting on charities is important because it is of public interest
  • But do negative issues always exist?
  • In cases of some other journalists, they’re trying to imitate the work [Kevin] is doing without doing the hard work.”

The CBC report

So what's an example of charity reporting with too strong a hypothesis? We found one in a CBC story on a charity. The danger of sensationalizing these types of stories is clear. Consider, for instance, the CBC’s recent report on charity. (See:

The headline: Charities paid $762M to private fundraisers. (Note the implicit suggestions that this is over a one-year period, which it is not.)

The lede: “Canadian registered charities paid $762 million to third-party fundraisers between 2004 and 2008, all of it deducted from donations and often dwarfing guidelines set out by the Canada Revenue Agency, a CBC investigation has learned.”

The fifth paragraph: “The $762 million over five years is a small fraction — less than 10 per cent — of the approximately $8.2 billion donated by Canadians annually, a level that earned them a third-place worldwide ranking for charitable giving by the British-based Charities Aid Foundation.”

Is this a really a story? We suggest not. By the fifth paragraph, they have already admitted that the problem is not really that severe. This is even when they compare the amount paid to private fundraisers over five years with the amount donated to charity annually.

Furthermore, in an accompanying video report (watch "Charities paid $762M to fundraisers"), they look deeper into one charity (Nova Scotia Crime Stoppers) that has a particularly high third-party fundraiser fees. Turns out that the arrangement with their marketing firm ensures they make their required level of fundraising and meet their operating costs. This also frees their volunteers to focus on responding to tips. Clearly, the story is not nearly as salacious as the headline suggests.

The charities lawyer, Blumberg, had this to say about it this story:
“I think they were starting to absorb and understand some of the stuff in the fundraising guidance,” says Blumberg, adding that journalists must spend more time studying the intricacies of the charity circuit.

  • “The knowledge of the average journalist who comes into the story is obviously very low especially when it comes to how charities operate.”
  • CBC headline suggests that it is a scandal.
  • By referencing $762 million dollars in the headline, it creates a false epidemic.
  • The cost is over a five year period, making the overall cost merely a fraction of the $8.2 billion donated annually.
  • “It was a bit too much of putting everyone who uses a third-party fundraiser in the same boat and they’re not,” says Blumberg.

The Legal Side

We know there are ethical problems with having too strong a hypothesis, but are there legal implications as well? In short? No. Strictly speaking, there are no legal implications for having an angle or hypothesis from the outset.

According to Bert Bruser, one of Canada’s leading media lawyers, "people will come to a reporter that they've been defrauded or ripped off and the reporter goes to investigate and do a story, a reporter may believe them and the reporter wants to do a stories and so they may want that hypothesis, mainly that these people were defrauded, to be true. Those things in themselves are not going to cause a legal problem."

But, of course, there are legal consequences associated with trying too hard to prove an angle or hypothesis.

“What causes a legal problem is if the reporter doesn't objectively, for want of a better word, do an investigation. Just because you think something is so isn't going to cause a legal problem, just because you believe that to be the case isn't going to cause a legal problem unless you f--k around with the facts and distort them, in which case you've got big time problems,” he says.

What kind of problems? Well, if we look at some relevant definitions and examples of malice, it seems having too strong a hypothesis could result in a defamation lawsuit:


Malice is the state of mind of the defendant. As Dean Jobb writes in Media Law for Canadian Journalists, test of malice is purity of motive. A plaintiff may prove malice based on evidence that a journalist acted spitefully or in bad faith—in a word, unprofessionally. Selective presentation of information and the use of statements and comments taken out of context have been seen as evidence of malice. Journalists should refrain from passing judgement or jumping to conclusions until they have all the facts. Journalists will not be seen to have acted with malice if they approach their stories with an open mind.

We also find a relevant definition of malice in Botiuk v. Toronto Free Press Publications Ltd.(1995), 126 D.L.R. (4th) 609 at 627.

Malice is commonly understood as ill will toward someone, but it also relates to any indirect motive which conflicts with the sense of duty created by the occasion. Malice may be established by showing that the defendant either knew that he was not telling the truth, or was reckless in that regard.

As we know, malice defeats the defenses of fair comment and qualified privilege: "The defences of fair comment and qualified privilege will fail if a plaintiff can prove that a journalist acted maliciously in publishing or broadcasting a story." (Jobb)

Malice also defeats the Public Interest, Responsible Journalism defense. The Supreme Court of Canada decided in Grant v. Torstar, the ruling that created the responsible communication public interest defense, “A defendant who has acted with malice in publishing defamatory allegations has by definition not acted responsibly.”

“The responsible journalism defense, from beginning to end, requires the reporter to be fair to the victim. And if you're not fair to the victim, if you don't give them the chance to explain and if you're following an agenda, and look at the facts and distort them to suit they're agenda, then you're f---ed,” said Bruser.

From Grant v. Torstar: "The defendant must show that publication was responsible, in that he or she was diligent in trying to verify the allegation(s), having regard to all the relevant circumstances... The logic of proportionality dictates that the degree of diligence required in verifying the allegation should increase in proportion to the seriousness of its potential effects on the person defamed.”

In short, having a hypothesis can have serious, legal consequences. We see an example of this in Hodgson v. Canadian Newspapers Company Limited. Overview from the case: “On March 22, 1991, The Globe and Mail (the appellant) published a front-page story reporting on the purchase of certain lands from a developer by the Region of York. The Region paid a substantial sum for the lands. The story stated that the respondent, the Engineering Commissioner of York Region, had recommended the purchase, but that planning documents indicated that the Region was entitled to acquire the lands at no cost and that the respondent had not disclosed that fact to the Regional Council. It was also reported that the developer who received the money was a long-time friend of the respondent. These allegations were repeated in several subsequent articles.
The respondent brought this action for defamation. After a 78-day trial, Lane J., sitting without a jury, rejected the defences of justification, fair comment and qualified privilege and found that the appellant Jock Ferguson, the journalist who wrote the articles, had acted with express malice. The respondent was awarded $880,000 for special, general, and punitive damages.

The appellants allege that the trial judge erred in finding that they had not proved justification and in rejecting their defences of fair comment and qualified privilege. The appellants also attack the trial judge’s finding of malice. They submit that if they are liable, the trial judge erred with respect to damages. The respondent cross-appeals, contending that the damages should be increased, both because of errors made by the
trial judge and because of the manner in which this appeal was conducted.

Jock Ferguson was ultimately found guilty of actual malice because Ferguson had written the articles complained of with an improper motive or purpose. Ferguson was found to have been, above all, “intent on writing a sensational story” and engaged in “systematic reporting of one side and non-reporting of the other.” The trial judge found that, whatever he meant to say, and whatever his belief, Ferguson was on a mission to write a sensational story without regard for the facts.


Having a hypothesis is safe and in many cases necessary. It's okay to have a one, just don't let it cloud your vision.

"Don't say it's wrong for reporters to believe a story to be true, because more than half the time you do believe that people were defrauded and you do the story," said Bruser.

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