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 crisisofcredit.com. 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 moneymeltdown.com/.
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!