How journalists can create better explainers

Explainers are one way for journalists to give audiences the knowledge they need to better understand the news or the world around them. Crafting an effective explainer requires savvy news judgment, inquisitive reporting and the skills to tell a strong story.

Here are some pointers to keep in mind when creating them.

Figuring out what to explain

Brian Palmer, Slate’s chief explainer, said by phone that he explains aspects of stories that publications mistakenly assume readers know. When Rick Perry was reported to carry a gun while running, for example, Palmer explained to Slate readers how runners use jog holsters to more safely carry weapons.

Slate Science and Health Editor Laura Helmuth suggests setting out to answer interesting and unexpected questions that go deeper than the traditional five Ws. “In this age of Google, the trick is to have an unanswered question that requires more than a fact to explain,” she said by phone.

NPR Planet Money’s Jacob Goldstein told me he likes to start with data. “You sort of swim around in it for a while and try to find something interesting,” he said. Goldstein prefers to examine themes in the news and look for ways to build narratives around them. He’ll follow issues like housing prices and income inequality and look for the stories others aren’t doing. He also recommends looking for opportunities to explain things that may not be making headlines. “Thinking beyond the news is a good way to be distinctive,” he said.

For the Planet Money team, that can mean obtaining customized data sets from government agencies that make it easier to explain things like what Americans actually spend their weekends doing.

Reporting the explainer

The best explainers reflect deep original reporting. “Call multiple experts if necessary,” Heidi N. Moore, the Guardian’s U.S. finance and economics editor, said via email. “If you don’t educate yourself on it, you can’t educate anyone else.”

Palmer visits libraries. “I’m the one who gets the librarian to go and find that obscure book that no one’s ever heard of,” he said. He also frequently consults academics, a task that can at times be awkward.

“You’ve got to lose your sense of shame a little bit,” he said. “Some of the questions are sort of embarrassing to ask but you have to ask them anyway.” A few recent examples he shared: asking one expert about what causes people to pee in their pants when they’re scared, and another about why men’s hair will turn gray while their eyebrows don’t.

New York University professor and explainer advocate Jay Rosen encourages reporters to embrace basic questions. In explanatory journalism, asking even the basic “what were you thinking?” at every level of a story can have great value, he said by phone. “That’s what’s so hard to understand about some of these stories — stuff like Madoff and Enron — the what were they thinking.”

Crafting the explainer

Instead of starting at the beginning of the story, lead with the most important or surprising elements of a story and then work down to the details, Moore suggested. A story she and a colleague wrote on the fiscal cliff last year started not with a history of the fiscal cliff but with a look ahead to a looming tax hike that was bringing the U.S. fiscal situation under increased scrutiny.

Palmer starts his Slate articles with a question, follows with a succinct answer and then elaborates and adds peripheral details. “The crucial thing is to nail the simple question and to write it in a way that doesn’t require any background knowledge,” he said.

When Research in Motion changed its name to BlackBerry last week, Palmer asked whether corporate name changes ever save struggling companies. A few days before the inauguration, he asked whether the Secret Service was responsible for protecting Bo, the Obama family dog.

Writing, of course, isn’t the only effective medium for explanatory journalism. One of the best explainers, Rosen said, is This American Life’s “The Giant Pool of Money,” which took the form of an audio documentary. Lam Thuy Vo frequently explains economic-related issues through graphics on NPR’s Planet Money blog. And David Holmes keeps busy creating music videos that explain complex topics in the news.

Holmes, a musician who is head of social media and experimental journalism for PandoDaily and co-founded Explainer Music, created the “Fracking: The Music Video” for ProPublica. Since it was published in May 2011, the video has been viewed more than 335,000 times on YouTube. The video complements a ProPublica fracking investigation by explaining how fracking works.

“By creating a song around the word fracking we thought could make this complex topic easier to digest,” he said by phone. “All an explainer is, essentially, is a starting point to understanding a complex topic.”

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  • Clayton Burns

    Junior the Third:

    No relation to Richard III, I assume?

    Professor Jay Rosen:

    There are two points I wish to raise.

    The first is the inability of journalism schools to teach orientation to information and engagement with readers.

    In a post at Poynter on explaining, which references you, the writer invited comment, but failed to respond.

    This is an acute matter for academics as well, who have gone paralyzed, or perhaps they have always been so. I hope that the next stage will not be putrefaction.

    Specifically, in education, but unnoticed by reporters, the teaching of elementary cohesion in the news is absent. Totally. If you read The NYT today, you will observe a major story on the McGraw-Hill Companies S.&P.’s C.D.O’s depredations. Perseveration: S.&P. and Moody’s “failed to reassess past ratings after improving their models in 2006.”

    NYT today A18: Letters on the suicide of Richard Fee: “High-stakes academic settings further serve to promote stimulant use (and abuse) as performance enhancers” (Marianne Kuzujanakis). Also, “the clinicians’ apparent lack of communication and inattention to medication databases” (Lloyd I. Sederer).

    Now, McGraw-Hill Education as sold to Apollo is an interesting issue. But how can it remain invisible to NYT editors that the very outfit that is sitting ultra-atop the C.D.O. mess created the McGraw-Hill’s SAT 2013 Edition, which is if anything even more toxic? Indoctrinating inattention and slapdash practice in education. As part of its industrialization of American education.

    How can it be impossible to think? How can Harvard have handed off its admissions to the SAT? Is there anyone at home in this vast beehive of “explanation”?

    I expected some serious explanations in “Winnie-the-Pooh,” but many of them turned out to be weirdly suspicious.

    Clayton Burns PhD Richmond, Canada

  • Clayton Burns

    Meena, Thank you for your clear explanation.

    I have a question for you: What are some ways to teach students to execute pronunciations so that in interviews or seminars they will get their words right?

    As an example, the distinction between the “e” vowels in “schizophrenia” and “schizophrenic,” nicely solely transcribed in the Cambridge and Oxford Advanced Learner’s as long and then short “e,” as in “free” and “friend.”

    Also in “breathe” and “breath,” “deceive” and “deception,” and “thief” and “theft.”

    In irregular verbs: “feel,” “felt,” and “sleep,” “slept.”

    The overall issue that I would like you to consider is why the flow of academic linguistic research and knowledge through into the schools and the public is so weak.

    The New York Times recently carried an interesting comment on middle school “Macbeth,” certainly the most powerful of Shakespeare’s plays in its sound patterns. Yet linguistics professors in phonetics and phonology often seem oblivious to its potential for teaching their subjects, and they contribute little that works its way into the consciousness of school students who are studying “Macbeth.”

    In fact, experimental cognitive scientists could long ago have formulated the question: Why is the practical integration of literature, linguistics, and cognition so weak that we can we sure Helen Vendler’s explanation of the greatest lyric in English–Emily Dickinson’s “It was not Death, for I stood up,”– will certainly be wrong?

    If we consider the contributions phonetics, phonology, and morphology could make to the practical study of “persevere,” “perseverance,” and “perseveration,” then we might wonder that the ancient ones have such an aversion to school students.

    You could take it up with the MLA. Good luck.