"Everything you need to know about X." Why explaining the news is harder than it looks
Have you had something "explained" to you yet today?
Chances are, you have. The last few weeks have brought the launch of three new sites designed to be companions to, rather than sources of, breaking news. The sites seek to boil down big stories by analyzing the data behind them, in the case of Nate Silver's 538, or simply by explaining the issues in plain English, as Ezra Klein's Vox.com aims to do. (There's a bit of overlap here: Vox too has an emphasis on "data-driven" journalism.)
Today, the circus of explanation gets a third ring, courtesy of the New York Times. Its new site, The Upshot, seeks to "navigate the news" in a "direct, plain-spoken way, the same voice we might use when writing an email to a friend." Naturally, it's also "data-driven," and its first batch of features includes a chart on the slippage of the American middle class and a very slick "statistical election-forecasting machine" that calculates each party's chances of winning the Senate after this year's mid-term elections.
One day in, The Upshot has had a pretty smooth launch. As for Vox.com and 538, some of their pieces have been very good, and some of them not so good, as you would expect from any site, let alone two that just launched. But there's been a special measure of scrutiny placed on these offerings, in part because they arrive with the backing of enterprises with deep pockets, but also because, with three similar sites launching within four weeks, we've got a straight-up trend on our hands.
(Not that explanation is some new concept to journalists. But with the 24-hour news cycle and now the digital age bringing about greater information-overload with only superficial understanding, I would argue the art of newsplanation serves a unique role today).
So how much value do these sites bring to readers?
In theory, a lot. In graduate school at NYU, I took a course on Explanatory Journalism taught by Jay Rosen. Rosen had a metaphor that really stuck with me describing one of the biggest problems with breaking news: "Suppose your laptop continually received updates to software that was never installed on your laptop." In other words, the latest dispatch from Ukraine means little to a reader who doesn't have a basic understanding of the conflict. By providing this context, explainers do more than simply educate readers; They increase a readers' demand for ongoing updates to the story, because they now have the ability to comprehend them. The explainer is the jumping-off point, not the final word.
That doesn't quite mesh with how The Upshot's David Leonhardt describes the site's mission: "[Readers] want to grasp big, complicated stories — Obamacare, inequality, political campaigns, the real-estate and stock markets — so well that they can explain the whys and hows of those stories to their friends, relatives and colleagues." It's the "Everything You Need To Know About X" syndrome.
The problem is, most issues worth understanding are far too complex to fully explain in the kind of bite-sized, shareable content nugget that's become the standard currency of the social media age. In fact, often the best explainers are longform pieces written by experts in the field, not short Q&As or slick infographics. (For Vox's part, Sarah Kliff continues to do God's work explaining how the Affordable Care Act works through old fashioned essay-writing.)
Counter-intuitively, sometimes the best explainers make readers feel like they know less not more, as topics are revealed to be far more complex than mainstream media outlets have led us to believe. A great example of this is "Everything you know about Ukraine is wrong" by our own Mark Ames. Ames spent years in Russia and has a firsthand understanding of the complex dynamics driving this conflict. After reading it, I was more confused than ever, which, if Marc Andreessen's "Smart People Fallacy" is to be believed, is a good thing. It made me want to learn more while giving me enough context to think critically about the ongoing news reports coming out of the region. And if anyone questions the demand for pieces like this, know that Ames' piece was among our most-read stories of all time.
Another big challenge, one I described when Vox.com first launched, is how to make explainers simple enough for newcomers to understand without boring people who have some knowledge of a topic but crave more. Infographics and interactives aside, this may be the area where technology can most help. At NYU, graduate student Blake Hunsicker built a tool for Syria Deeply that lets readers expand or collapse pieces of additional context within a story. That way, advanced readers can choose how deep they want to drill down into a topic while beginners can simply skate along the surface.
Finally, the Guardian's James Ball brings up a good point today: that explanation without a direct line to original reporting can only offer so much.
There's also the issue of how you test your explanations. Let's say crime rates go up (they're actually falling): is that because of the economy? Income inequality? A failing education system? Racial tensions? Or some other explanation that you haven't thought of yet?
In reality, it'll be a mix of many of the above, and a host of other things. But sitting with the data alone won't tell you that. Putting good reporters in the field might. Either way, explanation and reporting might not be separated quite as easily as the new startups would hope.
As Ball notes, The Upshot has the biggest advantage here, integrated as it is into the New York Times' newsroom. But I think the takeaway here is that journalists should think of "explainers" and "incorporating data" less like genres (or even worse, business models) and more like components in a journalist's ever-expanding arsenal of tools, sort of like how we used to have "social media journalists," and now every journalist is expected to be on social media. Because what's a journalist's job if it's not to help people understand things?[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]