At this delicate moment in history it seems more important than ever to learn from the distant and not-so-distant past. If we can apply those lessons quickly, we might just be able to prevent history from repeating itself.
Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University, just published a new book containing 20 lessons from the 20th century that he hopes will help modern societies defend democracy and resist tyranny.
One of his lessons — which is applicable to girl’s and women’s rights activists and rights advocates — is that we must all develop the skills of an investigative journalist.
“Figure things out for yourself,” he says. “It is your ability to discern facts that makes you an individual, and our collective trust in common knowledge that makes us a society.”
Facts really do matter, perhaps more than ever. When confronted with the facts, or when threatened with the mere possibility of being ‘fact-checked’, many mainstream politicians have changed course, issued apologies or retracted previous statements. The idea of being exposed as passing a non-truth works as a deterrent.
Developing a credible fact base is a critical tool in the arsenal of activists and advocates wanting to build convincing arguments to challenge the status quo. Facts are also vital to defend against leaders and decision makers who deceive the populace to maintain power and control.
“The individual who investigates is also the citizen who builds,” Snyder writes. “The leader who dislikes the investigators is a potential tyrant.”
So what do activists need in order to build up their investigative muscle?
Luckily, there is no lack of passion within the girls’ and women’s rights movement. While the situation might look bleak at times, it’s the spirit and commitment of tireless activists around the world that keeps them (and us) going each day. Put that same drive and determination towards seeking the truth and uncovering the facts about an issue, investigative journalist-style, and then use those facts to hold decision makers accountable.
Good investigators, like good activists, don’t take no for an answer. They know the truth is out there, and they will stop at nothing to uncover it. This takes courage, patience and dogged persistence. It often means asking the same question over and over. Or repeating the same facts over and over. This repetition is, actually, an important part of having an impact — i.e., continuously repeating accurate information so that the issue under investigation will not go away or be ignored.
Investigation begins with a healthy dose of logic and skepticism. Stop and question your own thoughts. Don’t just take other people’s word for things –– try to find alternate sources to corroborate what you’ve heard. Use logic and critical thinking and trust your instincts if you think you are being manipulated.
Case study: Dollars for Doctors
In 2010, ProPublica — an independent, nonprofit newsroom in the U.S. that produces investigative journalism in the public interest — began to look into the financial ties between the medical community and the drug and device industry.
Journalists from ProPublica compiled a list of payments that drug companies make to physicians and built a publicly searchable database so patients could look up their doctors. News organizations used the database to develop stories tailored to their local or national audiences. Stories appeared in nearly 200 outlets.
Citizens were also invited to join the investigation by searching the database for their doctor’s name to find out whether he or she received money from pharma. ProPublica reported nearly 12 million page views on the database.
Ultimately, this scrutiny prompted a tightening of disclosure rules and a heightened awareness and public discussion.