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  • Writer's pictureBrady Hummel

Making Sense of the World: Explanatory Journalism in the 21st Century

[This story was originally published in Stronger Content on July 16, 2016.]

The misguided trajectory of the "news"

Today, we live in a world in which information is easily accessible, yet difficult to discern and put into context. By reaching into our pockets or turning the TV on, we can access as much information as we want from myriad sources.

Information has become democratized, but that’s not necessarily the best thing for democracy.

Because of the plethora of options, media consumers like you and me can pick-and-choose which sources of news we read, watch, or listen to match our political beliefs, our media preferences, and our worldview. However, as the media has entered into a free market, of sorts, in terms of competition and high fluidity between options, news outlets had to adapt to stay relevant and competitive. They needed to give us what we demanded, in an economic sense.

So, that’s how we now have CNN, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, MSNBC, Buzzfeed, and Donald Trump’s Twitter. Great, quality news, to say the least.

It’s simple economics: because technology has democratized and decentralized the news away from the Big Three and the newspapers of record, everyone needs to fight tooth-and-nail for the attention of the consumer to grab as much market share as possible. Now, the MO is to have the most enticing headlines and sauciest pictures, the craziest stories that we can’t resist reading or watching, no matter how banal and irrelevant they are, in reality.

That type of journalism might bring in clicks and keep viewers coming back for more, but it doesn’t serve the primary purpose of the trade:

“The purpose of journalism is thus to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.”

With the massive flood of information that washes over us over the course of a day, it’s difficult for anyone to sort the relevant from the irrelevant, put it in context, and motivate it into their life. That’s not to say that it hasn’t always been like that, but this overwhelming phenomena has been exacerbated by the democratization of the news and saturation of supposed “news” in the public sphere. There needs to be an intentionality in providing all relevant information to the story to the reader or watcher in order to achieve journalism’s primary objective.

Enter explanatory journalism.

“Explanatory journalism aspires to provide essential context to the hourly flood of news — not simply a separate fact-checking operation but the mobilization of a rich array of relevant made possible by new technology but presented to the public in accessible and digestible formats.” — source

Parallel to the democratization of the news has been the deepening complexity of its subject matter; the world around us is getting seemingly crazier and crazier, and it can seem almost impossible to overcome the daunting intimidation of keeping up and understanding what’s going on.

This is why context is the key to which we can begin to unlock more and more of the world so that we can become better citizens. Without context, an article that we read or a snippet of news we overhear on the TV while we’re making an omelette in the morning will go in one ear and out the other, completely and totally failing the whole power of that news.

Amber Phillips, political blogger at the Washington Post’s The Fix, told the Brookings Institution that journalism should be like a friend at a bar explaining the full story behind the one sliver of new information:

It’s just like when you go out to a bar with a friend who’s enthusiastically and diligently telling you about her underwater basket-weaving class, and you (eventually) say, “I didn’t understand this before, but I do now.” That’s what explanatory journalism is supposed to do: provide the full context for the story so that the reader, listener, or viewer walks away smarter, more informed, and more engaged in the news and, thus, in the world around them. [The news is obviously a horse of a different color compared to underwater basket-weaving, and I only mean to highlight the cloud of obscurity that shrouds each for some in the world.]

With the democratization of the news through the emergence of various social media and other technological platforms, there are more options and media available now in a journalist’s toolbox in order to engage and to educate. Print is not the only medium now, as it can be complemented with videos, images, infographics, interactive data visualizations, podcasts, and so many others. Thus, explanatory journalism must utilize all available approaches in order to fully get the point of the news across, which has produced a wide array of interesting, accessible, and compelling examples from the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Vox, to name a few.

Ezra Klein, the founder and Editor-in-Chief of and arguably the biggest name in explanatory journalism right now, told the Brookings Institution in the same video above that explanatory journalism is on the rise in terms of relative importance in the media landscape of today and tomorrow because “different types of technological trends have made it easier to do good explanatory journalism at a faster clip and reach more people.”

When it comes down to it, journalism, at its most foundational and basic level of survival, is about engaging people. To some, that means playing to our human tendency to sometimes act like Pavlovian dogs. But, for explanatory journalism, it’s about appealing to and enhancing our better angels of reason, logic, and intelligence. It’s about diligently explaining the present in the context of the past in order to make a better tomorrow.

For, as Max Ehrenfreund, writer at the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, told Brookings for the same project: “journalism is the first rough draft of history.”

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