The need for context and explanation

For Tuesday’s discussion of explanatory journalism and how the Web can do so much more in helping us make sense of the news, please the “context manifestos” that led off the recent SXSW panel “The Future of Context” (and this good summary of the panel), Jay Rosen’s classic take on explanatory journalism … and … just for fun (thought not entirely related), see Clay Shirky’s latest post, “The Collapse of Complex Business Models.”

Drop in some of your ever-insightful comments below!

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13 Responses to “The need for context and explanation”


  1. 1 elisehu April 2, 2010 at 12:21 pm

    Thanks for the link to my post, Seth. Let me know if you ever want some Tribune folks to visit your class… we love talking about the future of news with the journos of the future.

  2. 2 Holly MacRossin April 4, 2010 at 2:40 pm

    I never realized the true need for “explanatory” journalism. I always thought, we journalists are explaining, what more do you want? I couldn’t have been more incorrect. The idea of first explaining, and then informing makes a lot of sense when it comes to trying to get an important message or story across. It is certainly true that news stories about government, politics and foreign affairs confuse the everyday citizen- the citizen who reads the paper or watches the news. Like me, they receive bits and pieces which they are forced to tie together themselves and somehow make sense of it all. What happens is either an uninformed audience or a misinformed audience. If this is the case, then journalists are doing a rushed, crummy job. How can we be the gate keepers of our nation and explain threats, scandals and the like concerning our country if all we are doing is throwing confusing lingo and uncommon phrases at the readers/watchers. After reading through these pieces I realized that using new mediums such as the Internet, we can first explain to our audience, and then inform. We can enrich the context. How we do this is giving background information about a topic, and then presenting the old, new, and updated information and news on this topic to the people.

    Jay Rosen makes a good point when he points to the necessity of context and the order in which it really ought to be presented:
    “In the normal hierarchy of journalistic achievement the most “basic” acts are reporting today’s news and providing current information, as with prices, weather reports and ball 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 reports.”

    He goes on to explain, this is not the way a journalist’s work should be approached. Like I said, explanation should come first. With so many new digital resources, this should not be an “extra task” for journalists, but part of their job so that people can be informed in the right way. The audience shouldn’t have to feel stupid about important topics that effect them. Journalists and experts should notice the helpfulness of first explanation,and then information to provide a more comprehensive context.

  3. 3 Donnie Hogan April 5, 2010 at 10:22 am

    I agree the news does need to have more context in order for the viewer/reader to understand what’s going on (I love Tristan Harris’ analogy of walking around the Met looking at art without context). The only problem I have is I’m not sure a lot of people will appreciate it for what it is.

    For example, every time I read or hear something on the news I don’t understand, the first thing I do is hop online to do some background and read a previous article or two, wiki, etc. to get a hold of the issue. However, people like my family, God bless them, are not that way and either don’t really care to know what’s going on or are just simply intimidated by information they don’t understand.

    It’s much easier for members of my family to latch on to an opinion about a topic from Glen Beck, Limbaugh, Bill Maher, Regis, whoever…. than to make an opinion of their own. What’s worse is they will proceed to talk about the subject if it gets brought up and act like they know what they’re talking about b/c they’ve been briefed by the opinions of the pundits previously mentioned.

    I’m going to go out on a limb and bet that I’m not the only one who experiences this with family members, friends, etc.

    We’re all “newsies”. That’s why we’re in this class. Not only do we want to know what’s going on, we want to be one of the firsts to know what’s going on. I’m merely suggesting that everyone else is not like us. If you just throw context at them, it won’t matter. It’s easier for them to get a cliff-note-style opinion from their favorite talking head and run with it.

    Context needs to be formatted and structured in a way that’s open, inviting and encourages people to learn. I’m not ignorant, I know my family will never be news-obsessed like I am. But it shouldn’t take a tragedy like “9/11″ or a disaster like “Katrina” to get people interested in the news again.

  4. 4 Jordyn Davenport April 5, 2010 at 8:56 pm

    I’ve been saying this since I was in high school! Unfortunately I grew up as one of those uninformed kids, not because I wanted to just because my parents didn’t have the news on when I was growing up. As I got older and became more interested in current affairs and especially once I started having to read the paper for J315 and J320 I got really frustrated because I was sincerely trying to be an informed citizen but it was impossible to catch up on current events because I had to spend so much time doing background research on every single topic. I experienced it again today as I read a 3 page article about the terrorist situation in Russia. I’m sure whoever wrote the story thought it was pretty in-depth since it was 3 online pages but as far as background goes all I gathered was that it’s been an ongoing issue for 20 years but I have no idea who is involved, what the major sides believe, etc.

    I agree with the end of Rosen’s post though when he said that just a few organizations would be in charge of developing background stories because obviously journalists already have a lot of stuff to get done in very little time for very little money. I never really checked back on Google’s living story but I remember reading a lot about it when they were first introducing it and using it to track healthcare reform and it seemed really cool because it provided a lot of background and it constantly updated and synthesized information. I think this would be an ideal format but getting it to work smoothly probably presents an entirely new set of challenges.

  5. 5 Patricia Rodriguez April 5, 2010 at 10:53 pm

    What I find most helpful about explanatory journalism as a model for news is it’s potential to refine the audiences knowledge about not just news but topics. Big picture issues need exposition, background information for the audience to understand; I like the examples of healthcare debate and the morgage crisis.

    I think the problem with this model is that I am not sure it is filling a large need. We (journalists and journalism students) are intrested, engaged and have the time/desire to read a 15 page manifesto about climate change and its effect on the Malaysian biosphere (for example). My question is: who else would care? I realize how depressing this is too say about people in general but we, as a whole simply aren’t interested.

    Also, the most used mediums of news used are not exactly compatable with long stories. They have a place in a newspaper but not on an iphone or my laptop. We like T.V. news and Internet news; I do not think that these two ideas are cohesive.

    That being said, I love this idea for revamping the way a story is written, or even better, the way we think about news. It’s based on understanding, engaging, question asking and answering, all things occasionally lacking in comtemporary news. Bottom line: this is part of the answer to how to update news for the 21st century. Not the whole picture.

  6. 6 Amber Genuske April 5, 2010 at 11:29 pm

    I definitely understand the need for context and explanation in every news story and the need for one story that explains everything about an issue. However, for every single news story to be classified as explanatory journalism would be exhausting to the reader and especially the journalist. Every news update on a story should have a link back to the explanatory piece, but it would be incredibly redundant if an update on an issue would also include the entire background and context of it.

    In Contextualizing Context, the idea of a site like ExplainThis.org is a great way to create a haven for this demand on explanatory journalism. People who crave it can go there, people who don’t won’t have to sit through all of the background. Another great example of this that they reference is This American Life (which I just subscribed too, I have been meaning to since I heard it in a friend’s car).

    A good local example of putting the health care reform into context is the Statesman’s timeline (http://www.statesman.com/news/nation/timeline-for-health-care-provisions-to-take-effect-416925.html). Though it is not an in-depth explanatory article, it simply puts into context when various provisions will take place.

  7. 7 Sean Beherec April 6, 2010 at 12:22 am

    I agree with the authors and their call for more context in news stories. Especially when you consider what traditional news organizations have done in the past, readers and viewers could definitely use some good context to their stories.

    As was stated in the readings, most news stories just assume that the reader is caught up with the topics they are discussing. Unfortunately, in print, you can usually only fit the latest news with maybe only one paragraph explaining why the new information is important and where it came from.

    With the capabilities that the web has to offer, some news organizations have begun presenting all of their context online. In some cases, this is the beginning of a larger trend, but some news organizations still only present graphics and other special sections that are designed for the educated reader.

    I think more news organizations should take an active approach to explaining news stories. It seems to be a method of news reporting that reporters claim to do, but in reality they only focus on the episodic stories the authors discuss.

    If more news is explained to the audience, the readers could make better decisions and would be better citizens. A reader with no comprehension is essentially a non-reader and there’s no point in producing information that can’t be digested.

  8. 8 John Lee April 6, 2010 at 12:54 am

    I could not agree more with Jay Rosen. This issue about the mortgage crisis few years back is the perfect example and still remains such. I had NO idea what was going on so I naturally just filtered any headlines with a reference to crisis and disregarded them.

    This article got me thinking. Rosen is right in that journalists “get paid to produce ‘the news,’ not the big narratives that permit more people to understand that news.” However, the irony lies in that if people don’t receive the background information to understand that news, they will not be the consumers the news organizations are seeking.

    When I read the news, I completely agree with the quote from American Life producer Alex Blumberg where he feels that he’s “always entering the story in the middle or often at the end.” However, news organizations fail in providing the necessary preliminary or background information to provide the foundation for people to understand the news stories or even explaining WHY the news stories are simply that, news.

    The example and importance that “The Giant Pool of Money” is seen in the fact that it was easily the most downloaded episode and the response from users showed that by “creating that scaffolding of understanding in the users that future reports can attach to, [it can drive] demand for the updates that today are more easily delivered.”

    In conclusion, if news organizations would provide more narratives of explanations, or explanatory journalism, then their consumers would be better informed, creating a higher demand for the news that the organizations are producing anyways.

  9. 9 Ryan Murphy April 6, 2010 at 2:03 am

    One particular thing that stuck out when reading through this was the idea that typically “breaking news” gets a lot of the glory in the newsroom (and from the readers) because the very nature of being instantly fresh and exciting to the audience naturally gives it a boost in context. Suddenly, everyone is in on this little secret that we all can share in the car on the phone with our parents and with our co workers once we get to work. The little sound bytes, these nuggets of knowledge, are what we as consumers rely on in today’s news environment to get by. It is easy to pass on any type of information in the this form because it has already been prepackaged for us for optimal delivery.

    I have no doubt that the This American Life podcast on the mortgage crisis was one of the best pieces of explanatory journalism ever to be come across, but the method of delivery (Public radio/downloadable podcast), the length of the piece (1+ hour), and perhaps most damning, relative obscurity in the minds of the masses (MSM vs. Public radio) all diminish the ability for the context of the story to reach a level of desired concern/interest. The very things that make news productions such as this so beautiful to watch unfold are what brings doom to the greater good.

    For example, the older I get and the more connected I find myself being, the sooner I discover content and information that most people otherwise either never come across or must wait for the sound byte version to be developed. It is depressing to come across a story such as the one from Giant Pool of Money and be practically unable to have a discussion with another human being on the subject because they have already been conditioned with the breaking news mentality.

    “Why should I care?” will always be a question the consumer asks, but if every piece of news in the future must fit into a Twitter-like word limit to get the point across in the most time efficient way possible, I fear for the diminishing value of context in society.

    Sorry, I started rambling. Hope there is some good stuff in there!

  10. 10 Kurt Mitschke April 6, 2010 at 9:05 am

    I’m not sure if it was brought up in this class or another journalism course, but I couldn’t help but think of this one example of context while I was reading these posts. As there are many sports fans in this class, I’m sure that we have all witnessed how in the middle of a game one of the announcers will say, “Now for those of you just joining us, this is and that are what happened in the first half, so that is why so and so is in this position and is doing this…”

    That is context.

    I cannot agree more to the importance of context. While reading an article, more often than not I find myself scouring the Internet—mostly Wikipedia—for articles or entries on a given subject. The online format of news stories and Twitter are great at bringing things to my attention, just not so much at always explaining these topics. I know OF THEM, just not necessarily ABOUT THEM.

    The idea of addressing this issue is great. As some of my classmates pointed out above, for most people, news stories do not provide enough for them to have an opinion or fully understand what is going on. Convenience takes priority here, and as Donnie mentioned, it is much easier for someone to latch on to another’s opinion about a topic, simply because they do not feel like putting the time into researching it on their own.

    I think it is obvious that as journalism students, we have a firm understanding of the importance of context. Now, we need to get that across to the readers. I believe that this change could have a great impact on news consumers, and ultimately, the future of news itself.

  11. 11 Katie Myung April 6, 2010 at 9:11 am

    When I wrote the news article about economy it was hard for me to understand all of the terms that I had to use. I had to research all the terms and situations and had to understand for writing the article. It made me frustrating but it was my duty for readers easier to understand.

    I agree with Jay Rosen’s argument that “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.” He makes a good point of the necessity of explanation.

    I think that explanation should be appeared and that makes readers informed properly. Throughout my experience, whenever I read an unfamiliar content from news articles then I search that content via online and finally can get tons of information about it. If plenty of information would be provided it was easier to understand when I read the article at the first time.

    However, as Rosen says just a few organizations would be in charge of developing background stories because they have lots of things to do in very little time for very little money. It would be obviously hard work for journalists but it would be worth. And I guess journalists who live in digitized era can be easier to research and get information than past journalists because they can access the internet and find out great sources from tons of websites.

  12. 12 Yolande Yip April 6, 2010 at 10:33 am

    I personally believe explanatory journalism to be essential. Like Jordyn, when I first started reading the news (and even today), I found it difficult to fully understand why certain issues were occurring, why things were important, etc.

    I just went to a meeting for the Austin Music Commission, and without pre-existing knowledge of the issues they discussed, I had a very hard time following the meeting. It’s the same for readers when they read an “episodic” news story.

    There definitely needs to be more contextual information provided in news stories, and features like “The Giant Pool of Money” are invaluable, but how do we promote this work-intensive type of journalism?

    While reading, a few obstacles to explanatory journalism occurred to me.

    First, the biggest obstacle seems to be that there isn’t a truly acknowledged need for explanatory journalism. As Elise Hu recapped in her post, many journalists view providing context as extraneous, unnecessary work. This mentality needs to change.

    Second, we need to evaluate which mediums work best for this in-depth journalism. As Patty noted, not all mediums are suitable. Even in a newspaper, there are space limitations.

    This reminds me of something John Ross, the independent journalist and author of “Murdered by Capitalism,” said when he came to speak at UT. After 5 decades of reporting in Latin America, Ross said he had gathered a rich background in the area’s history and he would try to put his stories in this historical context, but they would end up much too long, and no editor would publish them. But without the bigger picture, no reader could truly understand the issue, he said.

    So even if journalists recognize the need for explanatory journalism and take the initiative to do it, it’s possible they’ll be met with limitations both with the medium in which they are working and with their editor.


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