Arrow star Stephen Amell received a ton of backlash for his twitter response to the situation in Texas surrounding the arrest of Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year old teenager who had been accused of bringing a bomb to school (for those uninformed on the situation, it was a clock). The events sparked a wave of stereotyping towards Texas. Amell, whose wife and extended family is from Texas, defended the state with this tweet.
Many of the same people Amell spoke against fought back, claiming everything from racism to just pure ignorance. But that's not the point. Regardless of what you believe, and regardless of your opinions on Amell and Ahmed himself, this was a prime example of people assuming. People assumed that Texans are racist because of the actions of the teacher, people assumed Amell was racist because he defended the state, and the whole issue started because someone assumed that the device Ahmed built must have been a bomb.
Assumptions are the greatest threat to civil discussion and the highest wall between opinion and fact. And all of this could have been avoided by asking the simple questions. When Ahmed said "look what I built!" the teacher could have asked "Well what is it?" instead of immediately assuming he'd answer "a bomb". When people saw the response, they should have asked "why did they do this?" instead of immediately assuming racism. And when Amell tweeted, they should have asked "what do you mean?" instead of thinking they already knew.
Why? Because regardless of the answer, the outcome is then on them. If I, as a journalist, accused Amell of racism based on the tweet, sure, I could have been right. But if he comes back and says "no, you're wrong", I've reported conjecture, not facts, and affected his reputation and his life negatively because people trusted me to bring them facts, and formed opinions based on my opinion.
This principle applies to everyone, though, not just journalists. We as a society need to become better informed, and more knowledgeable. We don't have to agree on everything. People love to say that opinions can't be wrong, but if an opinion has no basis in the truth, it can and will be incorrect.
There are a million "what ifs", of course, and I can't cover all of them. "What if he lies?" Then challenge. Press for the truth. "What if he admits it?" Then he's confirmed it and you have facts, not just a guess, even if your guess was correct. More communication; more knowledge have never hurt a society. Assumptions? Well, you know what they say. They make an ass out of you and me.