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!


Wanted to share a thought with you, Jay. The reason why the Democrats lost this mid-term is because they did a HORRID job of explaining health care reform. In spite of the good things for SMBs, the Republicans poked the necessary holes, seeded doubt and successfully launched a grassroots tirade.

If you want my opinion, Karl Rove is brilliant and a mastermind at explaining his views to the masses and raising consensus among the electorate.

Interesting project; in my field of public relations I always must explain what I do. When a client gets it only then can I deliver the highest ROI and value.

Think tanks are increasingly putting out some great “explainers” via more robust data visualization.

Some examples:

Granted, two of these examples lack linear “narration” per se, but even journalism is so quickly becoming a medium to digest complex data, particularly in visual form.

Steven H. says:

Lose the bias. Is it possible to have an unbiased explainer? I’ve never read one.

A journalist’s job is to be skeptical and inquisitive. How can you be skeptical trying to explain something? To explain is to have an agenda, because you are making an argument that your explanation reflects reality. Journalists should be skeptical of agendas, not advance them.

It’s more important to pick apart others’ explanations.

You’re wrong. If journalists aren’t in the explaining reality business we have no need of them. The notion that this is somehow in conflict with being skeptical, inquisitive and truthful does not make a lot of sense to me.

Hey. I’ve just discovered your website and it looks very interesting. Sorry, no links come to mind for the survey above. But, thank you for making me aware of this concept.

David Leonhardt does quite a good job explaining issues related to economics. One key to this seems to be the inclusion of both graphics and interactive features to supplement his writing. Here are how all three were combined to address the budget deficit.

I would also reiterate the point others have already made about bias. Most journalists are not experts in the fields they are asked to cover. This isn’t an excuse to present all perspectives as if they are equally valid.