"Anecdotal evidence has a sort of slippery, jelly-like quality to it, and theories are needed to congeal the stuff together into single, solid facts. 'Anecdotal' is often used as a pejorative term in scientific circles, meaning unreliable. In practice, it often means isolated, and therefore hard to assess. Think of a new field of science as a large jigsaw puzzle. Pieces are discovered one by one, and at first they are unlikely to fit together to make a picture. Things can look distinctly unpromising, sometimes for decades. But if you can bear the pain of feeling stupid and the humiliation of being wrong, anecdotal evidence is the call of the wild."
--- Luca Turin, "The Secret of Scent"
I'm quoting here from one of my new favorite books, published in 2006 by HarperCollins; Turin, a European scientist, writes beautifully about our sense of smell.
For journalists, I'd substitute the words "gut instinct" for "anecdotal evidence".
It's a talent more journalists need to rely -- and start investigations from. I've worked as a reporter and feature writer for three major daily newspapers, including the New York Daily News, whose traditional motto is "Tell it to Sweeney", proxy for some poorly-educated outer-borough blue-collar reader. I do appreciate how dubious some editors can be, reflexively disdaining anything that's not already a visible, audible data point.
Yet the best reporting often comes from observing, listening to and thinking about issues that haven't yet made front page of The New York Times or CNN headline news -- and deciding long before a Big Name Company does that they offer a story worth telling.
I loathe "pack journalism", the herd instinct makes a story pursued by only a few individuals, by the very fact so few people are actively pursuing it, look wacky and misguided. (See pain and humiliation, above.) But if you beat the pack, as you will, look out for its collective blood frenzy when those competitors realize you've made them look slow and stupid. It takes courageous editors to assign, fight for and publish pieces that veer away from the "official" story, the "reality by consensus" that so often infects a press corps competing for the same sources and assuming "the" story is the one they're all more or less covering at the same time.
That's why I think freelancers have a huge advantage when it comes to seeing -- and trusting their gut on -- potential story ideas. I've seen how horribly beaten down even the best staff reporters can get after their umpteenth pitch has been sneered at or ignored by their bosses. Without the relentless peer pressure of a newsroom, whether financial (you know they won't send you anywhere), or psychological (you know what makes front page consistently, and this sort of story isn't it), you're freer to take some chances, and take some hits.
Yes, you might be wrong. That story may not pan out. But at least you've got the time and freedom to check it out.
I liken the best journalists to astronomers in their ability to discern patterns in what, to the rest of us, look like undifferentiated clouds of galactic dust. While the trained astronomer can easily tell a satellite from a star, and can name dozens of constellations, the best journalists also develop the ability -- by doing it over and over and over -- to discern patterns in the world around them long before someone packages it and sends out a press release about it.
These patterns show up everywhere: what your kids are hearing, or saying at school; what you see every day in your commute; repeated concerns, whether political, economic, cultural or environmental, sometimes from a wide range of locales with little else in common. (Global warming?)
It takes guts to trust your gut, to start accumulating clip files and/or broadcast transcripts and/or weblinks -- what some journalists call "saving string". But until you do, how can you start to see what relationships these scattered data points may have in common? Maybe you're working only from a hunch or a suspicion and clear evidentiary links of causation and consequence may not be obvious to you, or anyone else, for a long time.
But if you feel strongly there might be a story there, go for it, even on your own time and dime. Tell a few experienced colleagues you trust (not to scoop you or laugh at you) and see what they think of your theory.
My first book, still selling after three years in print, is the end result of this process. It started with a private conversation with a colleague who, as I'd somehow guessed, owned several guns. I wrote about my reaction in a personal essay for the Globe and Mail, a national daily. Then I persuaded the Wall Street Journal to send me to shooting school, where I met many new sources. I next wrote a long story for Penthouse about women and guns, which I realized was an ignored yet essential piece of the larger and more familiar story about Americans and gun ownership. By then I also knew there was no book about it, at least not in the way I wanted to write it.
It all began with a gut feeling. Trust your gut!