Building a Better Explainer: Help Us Out

My graduate students and I are embarking a big project that revolves around a particular genre in journalism: the explainer. And we need your help.

17 Nov 2010 2:35 pm 7 Comments

An explainer is a special feature that does not provide the latest news or update you on a story. Rather, it addresses a gap in your understanding: the lack of essential background knowledge, such that items in the news don’t make sense, fail to register as important or add to the feeling of being overwhelmed.

A simple example of an explainer is a timeline. A more intricate one is Slate, of course, has been running an explainer column for years. The New York Times recently published You Fix the Budget, an interactive graphic that helps explain why the budget is so hard to balance. Cloud Computing in Plain English explains a term computer users may have heard but not understood. Explainer meets aggregation: Matt Thompson’s

Explainers are typically needed when an issue has a long history (and we’re coming in the middle of the movie) or the problems involve complex, interdependent systems that overwhelm the average user (as with health care reform in the U.S.) or the new system coming online is unfamiliar to us and doesn’t work the way we expect things to work (as with many changes in technology.)

Journalists have always seen “explanation” as part of their brief, but until the Web era they were limited in what they could do to provide essential background knowledge because space was tight, time was precious, and news was fundamentally about what’s new. But online it’s possible to serve the updates (the news) and provide the knowledge necessary to understand the tangled problems and complex systems from which much of the news arises.

It’s not only that space is almost unlimited online (though the user’s time and attention are not.) It’s also that the tool kit has been expanded. The journalist’s powers of explanation have increased with video, audio, graphics, animation, data journalism all coming into their own. Meanwhile, the need for explainers has also increased with the flood of information coming at people, much of it without the vital context that permits us to feel more informed. That’s a problem. As Matt Thompson has said, We Can’t Keep Offering the News Without Context.

I wrote about these issues in my 2008 post, National Explainer, which was about the revelation I experienced after listening to the greatest explainer ever heard, This American Life’s one hour documentary about the mortgage lending crisis, “Giant Pool of Money.”

I noticed something in the weeks after I first listened to “The Giant Pool of Money.” I became a customer for ongoing news about the mortgage mess and the credit crisis that developed from it. (How one caused the other was explained in the program’s conclusion.) ‘Twas a successful act of explanation that put me in the market for information. Before that moment I had ignored hundreds of news reports about Americans losing their homes, the housing market crashing, banks in trouble, Wall Street firms on the brink of collapse.

And that’s why explainers are important to the future of news. Got it?

My Studio 20 students and I have embarked on a year-long project intended to move the ball forward on building a better explainer for the new system of news. Our first step is to assess the state-of-the-art. So if you’re inclined to help us out, take a look at the questions below and add in anything you know. (Or use the comments.) Thanks!


What Jon Stewart Meant to Tell Rachel Maddow

I took to YouTube last night to record my interpretation of Jon Stewart's lengthy and at times halting interview with Rachel Maddow, in which two people who obviously like and respect each other--and watch each other's shows--struggled over what's right and wrong in cable news.

15 Nov 2010 9:34 am 27 Comments

I’m posting it here so we can have a debate in the comments.

I’ve never done one of these before, not sure I will again. I guess it turned out alright. But you tell me! (The clip is 15 minutes long. The original is here if you prefer to watch it at YouTube or want the embed code.)

Some additional material for those who care:

Here’s the full cut of the interview Rachel Maddow did with Jon Stewart on MSNBC, Nov. 11, 2010. It’s over an hour.


The View from Nowhere: Questions and Answers

"American journalism is dumber than most journalists, who often share my sense of absurdity about these practices. A major reason we have a practice less intelligent than its practitioners is the prestige that the View from Nowhere still claims..."

10 Nov 2010 2:04 am 52 Comments

After dismissing Mr. Williams, who was one of its senior news analysts, NPR argued that he had violated the organization’s belief in impartiality, a core tenet of modern American journalism. By renewing Mr. Williams’s contract, Fox News showed its preference for point-of-view — rather than the view-from-nowhere — polemics.
—Brian Stelter, Two Takes at NPR and Fox on Juan Williams, New York Times, Oct. 21, 2010

(This Q and A was conducted by Jay Rosen, solo. He did the questions and the answers.)

Q. You’ve been using this phrase, “the view from nowhere,” for a while–

A. Yeah, since 2003

Q. So what do you mean by it?

A. Three things. In pro journalism, American style, the View from Nowhere is a bid for trust that advertises the viewlessness of the news producer. Frequently it places the journalist between polarized extremes, and calls that neither-nor position “impartial.” Second, it’s a means of defense against a style of criticism that is fully anticipated: charges of bias originating in partisan politics and the two-party system. Third: it’s an attempt to secure a kind of universal legitimacy that is implicitly denied to those who stake out positions or betray a point of view. American journalists have almost a lust for the View from Nowhere because they think it has more authority than any other possible stance.


“I’m committed to the destruction of the old media guard.” ABC News and Andrew Breitbart.

Wake up, journalists. You have no magic exemption from the requirements of political maturity. There are people out there who seek your destruction, and they are not evenly distributed.

3 Nov 2010 11:24 am 54 Comments

“We think it’s important informationally. We are not allowing ourselves to think politically.”

Those are the words of former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie, explaining to author Matt Miller how decisions are made about what belongs on the front page. Not allowing ourselves to think politically is a piece of pressthink that fascinates me, and this is a post about that.

I understand what Downie meant. He meant that the news should be, as far as humanly possible, an ideology-free zone. In making up the front page, the editors of the Washington Post are not trying to advance an agenda they have, or solve a problem they think needs solving, or rally people to a cause they find worthy. They are not fighting for justice or against the enemies of reason. They have cooler heads. They are thinking informationally.

I get all that. I understand how pursuing a political agenda in the guise of providing news is a bad idea, unlikely to generate trust in the provider. As I have written elsewhere, “Power-seeking and truth-seeking are different behaviors, and this is what creates the distinction between politics and journalism.” But even so, not being able to think politically can get you killed in big league journalism.

ABC News got killed this week. These events are worth reviewing because they point to a blind spot in the mind of the mainstream press that seems to be getting worse.


NPR News Analyst: How Juan Williams Got Fired

“The term 'analysis,' as NPR is using it here, means something so obscure, tendentious and peculiar to the culture of professional journalism that the vacuous and tautological statements I’ve quoted are probably the network’s better option."

24 Oct 2010 6:15 pm 38 Comments

The statement read: “His remarks on The O’Reilly Factor this past Monday were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.”

That was NPR terminating the contract of Juan Williams after remarks on Fox News Channel about his fear of Muslims. “The deluge of email crashed NPR’s ‘Contact Us’ form on the web site,” wrote Alicia Shepard, the NPR ombudsman, who called the dismissal poorly handled. You can sample the explosion of commentary here. My own views most closely parallel what Will Bunch said about it.

What the hell is a “news analyst?”

I am less interested in adding to this debate than in isolating one key element in NPR’s pressthink: a job category, news analyst, that is distinct from reporter and show host on the one hand, or commentator or columnist on the other. Officially, the reason Juan Williams was fired is that he failed to follow NPR policies for what a “news analyst” is permitted to do. This is from CEO Vivian Schiller’s memo to NPR affiliates:

NPR News analysts have a distinctive role and set of responsibilities. This is a very different role than that of a commentator or columnist. News analysts may not take personal public positions on controversial issues; doing so undermines their credibility as analysts, and that’s what’s happened in this situation. As you all well know, we offer views of all kinds on your air every day, but those views are expressed by those we interview – not our reporters and analysts.

By all accounts, NPR grew more and more uncomfortable with Williams as his appearances on Fox began to draw complaints. “After other inflammatory comments on Fox, in April 2008 NPR changed Williams’ role from news correspondent (a reporting job) to news analyst,” the ombudsman writes. “In this contract position, he was expected to report, think quickly and give his own analysis – while carefully choosing his words on any given subject.”


The 100 Percent Solution: For Innovation in News

"It starts with a vision: what if we could cover all of it? When you try to act on that vision, you invariably run into problems. And it's sweating those problems that leads to innovation, or at least to new knowledge."

21 Oct 2010 2:07 am 20 Comments

Here’s a little idea for creating innovation in news coverage: the 100 percent solution. It works like this: First, you set a goal to cover 100 percent of… well, of something. In trying to reach the goal you immediately run into problems. To solve those problems you often have to improvise or innovate. And that’s the payoff, even if you don’t meet your goal.

Got it? Good. For that’s the whole idea.

In the rest of this post I will explain what I mean and why I think it can work. And I will give you some examples. Because the 100 percent solution is not an entirely new idea. It’s been tried. My aim is to get more of you to try it in some form.

So let’s start with a few imaginary cases

There’s going to be a wide open mayor’s race in Chicago because the incumbent, Democrat Richard M. Daley, is retiring. Rahm Emanuel is running and he will have plenty of competition. A big city mayoral election generates a lot of events: Candidates appear all over town. Unions and community groups have to decide whom to endorse. Speeches, debates, rallies, fundraisers in living rooms, backyard barbeques, meetings in church basements… Picture them all on a spreadsheet. Now tack that spreadsheet up on a wall.

What if we tried to cover every event, big and small, involving every candidate who had a legitimate chance to be the next mayor, but also all the events where the candidates themselves may be missing but the campaign is somehow alive and present in the space between Chicagoans. That would be 100 percent coverage of campaign events.