Explanatory Journalism

As we discussed in class Monday, Journalism (with a big “J,” in talking about the field generally) could improve dramatically by using the Web for what it’s good at: not only going deep and plumbing the depths of a topic, but using links to put the day-to-day drip-drip of news in the context of something simple and basic. In other words, explain it. (Just like Uncle Jay!)

As Jay Rosen wrote:

What’s basic? If the providers of information aren’t providing thebasic explainers that turn people into customers for that information, they don’t deserve those customers and won’t retain them. So as we think about new models for news we need to think about expanding that little what’s this? feature you sometimes see on effective web sites. That’s not about web design. That’s a whole category in journalism that I fear we do not understand at all.

Rosen highlighted this weakness as he described his own “discovery” of the story on the subprime mortgage crisis this summer through a brilliant piece of explanatory journalism, a This American Life radio piece dubbed “The Giant Pool of Money” — the “greatest explainer ever heard.” (A shorter version was aired on NPR.)

More from Jay Rosen after the jump.

OK, a key thing I’d like you to get about all this:

Explanatory journalism not only makes news easier to understand, but in doing so it changes the very model for news: “Information” and “explanation” are reversed in our order of thought, Rosen argues. So, rather than bury readers with information-information-information up front, we provide better explanation at the outset, which in turn increases the demand for information (i.e., the bulk of our journalism):

In the normal hierarchy of journalistic achievement the most “basic” acts are reporting today’s news and providing other current information, as with prices, weather reports and scores. We think of “analysis,” “interpretation,” and also “explanation” as higher order acts. They come after the news has been reported, building upon a base of factual information laid down by prior accounts.

In this model, I would receive news about something brewing in the mortgage banking arena, and note it. (“”Subprime lenders in trouble. Must keep an eye on that.”) Then I would receive some more news and perhaps keep an even closer eye out. After absorbing additional reports of ongoing problems in the mortgage market (their frequency serving as a signal that something is up) I might then turn to an “analysis” piece for more on the possible consequences, or perhaps the work of an economics columnist. I thus graduate from the simpler to the more sophisticated forms of news as I learn more about a potentially far-reaching development. That’s the way it works… right?

But there are certain very important stories–and the mortgage crisis is a good example–where until I grasp the whole I am unable to make sense of any part. Not only am I not a customer for news reports prior to that moment, but the very frequency of the updates alienates me from the providers of them because the news stream is adding daily to my feeling of being ill-informed, overwhelmed, out of the loop. I respond with indifference, even though I’ve picked up a blinking red light from the news system’s repeated placement of “subprime” items in front of me.

And on top of that, if I decide to buckle down and really pay attention to “subprime loans go bad” news–including the analysis pieces and the economics columnist–I am likely to feel even more frustrated because the missing master narrative prevents these efforts from making much of a difference. The columnist who says he is going to explain it to me typically assumes too much knowledge (“mortgage-backed securities?”) or has too little space to actually do that, or is bored with the elementary task of explanation and prefers that more sophisticated interpretations of the latest developments appear under his byline. Or maybe, as with this story, the very people paid to understand the story barely know how to explain it. That’s the opening theme of this column from The New York Times economics columnist David Leonhardt, “Can’t Grasp Credit Crisis? Join the Club.”

Back to supply and demand. Good explanatory journalism turns the usual equation — lots of supply (we’re drowning in AP stories! news alerts! blog posts! oh my!) with increasingly less demand, in part because supply is exploding — on its ear, generating new demand for information. More Rosen:

A case of demand without supply?

After the first version of this post ran at Idea Lab, blogger Simon Owens interviewed This American Life producer Alex Blumberg about some of the ideas in it. ““I feel like my constant problem with the daily news media is that either you’re always entering the story in the middle or often at the end,” Blumberg said. “And they don’t do a very good job of talking about the beginning and what got us to this point where it became news.”

Exactly. And that’s a problem. It’s been a problem for a long time, except that no one ever does anything about it. Why? Because they get paid to produce “the news,” not the big narratives that would permit more people to understand that news. But this may be a case of demand without supply. “The Giant Pool of Money” is This American Life’s most popular episode ever. Blumberg told Owens that it beats its nearest competitor by 50,000 downloads. Turns out my reaction was a common reaction:

People were saying things like, “I didn’t really understand this. It was in the news all the time but I didn’t know what they were talking about until I heard that episode.” It was very gratifying because that’s exactly what my intent was. Because that was me; I didn’t understand it either.The producers of this American Life started with the same feelings I had: ill-informed, overwhelmed, and out of the loop about the “subprime” story. But then they mastered it; and it is that trajectory—from drift to mastery—that the listener takes during “The Giant Pool of Money.” In a way the star of the story is understanding itself. It struggles but emerges victorious.

By the way, there’s a Pulitzer for explanatory reporting … but something tells me we still haven’t grasped that “explanatory” journalism shouldn’t be an “add-on” aspect of news — it should be a dominating, defining feature, and it can best be accomplished online.

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