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How Our „What We Know“ Articles Are Produced


This article appears in our new blog „Glass House,“ in which we provide a transparent look at how we make our journalistic decisions.

Lesen Sie die deutsche Version hier.

The truth is that we often know very little. In the case of significant, developing stories, we initially find ourselves confronted with more questions than answers — whether it is the attack on the Charlie Hebdo editorial offices or the Bataclan concert hall in Paris, the attack in Nice, the shooting in Munich or, most recently, the attack in Berlin.

If you leave aside all of the media hype generated by the incident at the Christmas market at Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, if you ignore the speculation, the dismay and the opinions and concentrate solely on the facts, there isn’t much left, even several days after the event: A semi-truck plowed through the lane of a Christmas market. Twelve people are dead, 45 are injured, some of them seriously. The perpetrator fled the scene. That is the core of what we know for sure.

Some time ago, ZEIT ONLINE developed a format to isolate these core facts in the case of rapidly developing events like a terror attack. We call it „What We Know.“ Other media outlets use similar formats, though each one follows different standards. That is one of the reasons why we are using this space to explain how we develop our „What We Know“ articles.

The format is designed to provide a quick and easily understandable overview of the facts we know to be true — and only those facts. It should be an anchor in the wave of rapid-fire reports. Those who become disoriented by the confusing and often contradictory information circulated during huge news events can always return to our „What We Know“ article to find their bearings. Indeed, the article is not only helpful for our readers, but also for ZEIT ONLINE editors and reporters who are writing about the event.

The piece is written by a defined team of journalists, usually by our two investigative teams belonging to our online and print teams. As new facts come in or our knowledge of a certain aspect is expanded, that information is translated into English as quickly as possible. There may, however, be brief periods during which the English version lags behind the German version.
We adhere to a clear set of rules when writing our „What We Know“ articles:

1. Reliable Sources

Only those facts are included that we ourselves have been able to verify or which have been confirmed by two independent sources that we trust.

This simple ground rule explains why „What We Know“ articles include very few elements early on. When a suspect was arrested on the night of the terrorist attack in Berlin, for example, we were extremely careful not to describe him as the driver of the truck. We also included nothing about his background for quite some time, even though several other outlets had already written about it. Some of the information was contradictory and we also weren’t sure whether it was coming from a single source that all media outlets were using.

We too sought to learn more about the man that the police had arrested that night. Where was he from? How long had he already been in Germany? They were all facts that had been confirmed, but which, as soon became clear, were a dead-end. The police were unable to find a connection between the man and the crime.

2. No Conjectures

Rule No. 1 necessarily demands extremely clear language. In our „What We Know“ articles, you will not find any conjecture whatsoever. Formulations like „The suspect could still be in Berlin“ or „The man is thought to be 24 years old“ only show that the information has, in fact, not been confirmed.

3. No Judgments

Our „What We Know“ format is only for facts and not for judgments, assessments or evaluations. It is not a place for interpreting what the incident might mean. It doesn’t include efforts at analysis by politicians or experts. We also don’t include consequences that result from the incident, such as conclusions being drawn by the agencies involved.

4. As Much Transparency as Possible

We make it clear what we don’t know for sure. If we feel it is reliable, we include information being reported by other media outlets or sources, but we clearly label it to indicate that we have not yet been able to confirm the information by way of an independent, second source. We only include such clearly labeled, unconfirmed information if it is potentially important to the reader’s understanding of the event.

In addition to collecting facts about an incident, we also believe it is important to list the most important questions that haven’t yet been answered.

As simple as these rules may sound, they aren’t always easy to follow. What is confirmed knowledge and what parts of it are important?

Our „What We Know“ articles are changing constantly. We delete those facts that are no longer relevant and add new ones as they are confirmed. Sometimes, they are mere details, such as when it became clear how the truck used in the Berlin attack entered the city and where it had been parked at what times.

If, however, there are no new facts that can be confirmed, the article may remain unchanged for an extended period of time. Accuracy is valued over speed. It may seem at times as though we aren’t aggressively pursuing the story, and it might look initially as though we know nothing. But we nevertheless hope that this format can provide you, our readers, with orientation.