From Schoolhouse Rock to 'The Fracking Song,' explainers as 'acts of empathy'

In all the years he’s been playing the guitar and keyboard, David Holmes never pictured himself recording a song about hydraulic fractured drilling.

But Holmes, a journalism student in New York University’s Studio 20 program, recently did just that as part of Studio 20’s "Building a Better Explainer Project."

The explainer, called the “The Fracking Song,” unravels the complexities of natural gas drilling and has already gotten about 78,000 hits on YouTube since it launched last week. Holmes created the song to go along with a related investigation by ProPublica, which is a partner in the Studio 20 project.

“We were concerned with building a better entryway into that investigation and we figured a song would be the perfect way to do it -- especially since it's called fracking,” Holmes said by phone. “It worked perfectly for a song, and let us do some interesting things lyrically.”

The chorus of the song illustrates this:

"What the frack is going on with all this fracking going on?
"I think we need some facts to come to light
"I know we want our energy but nothing ever comes for free
"I think my water’s on fire tonight ..."

Holmes knew little about fracking prior to recording the song, so he read ProPublica’s stories about it and tried to figure out what context he needed to help people make sense of the issue.

“A lot of the stories on ProPublica’s site do a really good job of adding context, but some of them are more like news updates. Those might link to proper context, but if you just started reading them and you knew nothing about fracking, it would be harder to understand.”

Providing lyrics, adding additional context

Holmes, who played the bass and keyboard in the song, wrote the lyrics with classmate Niel Bekker and asked two of his friends to create the graphics. Another one of his friends co-wrote the music with him and mixed the song. Holmes said ProPublica edited the lyrics and made minor changes, such as replacing “leads” to “could lead” in the line “Fracking done wrong could lead to climate change too.”

The Huffington Post, The New York Times, Forbes and others have written about the song, and some have pointed out the importance of using careful language when describing the implications of fracking.

“It was a little bit challenging because the song was really wordy to being with,” Holmes said. “But ProPublica wanted to make sure that the lyrics were as journalistically robust and as accurate as the investigation was.”

This isn’t the first time ProPublica has used songs as explainers. Last year, it collaborated with NPR's Planet Money to create a song about the banks' financial crisis and a show tune about a hedge fund.

"The Fracking Song" stands out because it's accompanied by lyrics with links to stories in ProPublica’s investigation. This adds a layer pf context and makes it easier for people to delve deeper into the parts of the explainer that interest them most.

ProPublica Senior Editor Eric Umansky, who helped with Studio 20's "Building a Better Explainer Project," said the song accomplished what ProPublica hoped it would by making an important energy issue both entertaining and accessible. The song, he said, is a good reminder that it’s important to give people options when it comes to consuming news.

“Journalists have many more tools in our toolbox than we did even five or 10 years ago,” Umansky said by phone. “We can be more creative in terms of how we tell stories, and we should take advantage of that. It doesn't mean we’d have to do it every time, but we should be thinking about how we can use those tools.”

Explainers as context providers, “acts of empathy”

Jay Rosen, who leads the Studio 20 program, says that when it comes to the news, people often enter "in the middle of the movie." Unless they are particularly passionate about a topic and have followed it closely, they may not have the background information they need to understand the larger picture.

And journalists may not always provide it -- either because they don’t want to weigh down a story with information they’ve already reported, or because they’re so immersed in a story that they forget not everyone knows as much as they do about the topic at hand.

In many ways, Rosen said, explainers like the Fracking Song are "acts of empathy" with the non-specialists; they anticipate the questions “regular” users are going to have and answer them.

“There's the stream of updates for the news junkies who already have a framework for understanding the story; explainers are for the rest of us," Rosen told me. "When you realize that the most common definition of news is ‘what’s new today,’ or what hasn’t been reported yet, you can see why explainers are a special case in journalism, their own genre.”

Explainers often work best when they contain visuals, Rosen said: "Visualization is really important for two reasons: the eye can take in so much more in a glance if there are the right visuals, and clarity is often composed in visual images."

The value of putting information to music

Anecdotally speaking, songs work well as explainers because they can help people retain information.

“If you read an article in a newspaper, chances are you’re not going to read it again unless it’s really good," Holmes said. "If a song is catchy, people may listen to it numerous times, and that allows that information to sink in.”

I still remember the lyrics to “The Fifty Nifty United States" -- a song that lists all the states alphabetically. I learned the song in elementary school and doubt I'd still be able to alphabetize the states had I simply seen them listed on a piece of paper.

And think about Schoolhouse Rock, educational music videos that aimed to help students remember the preamble to the Constitution and grammar by putting them to music. The series’ creator, David McCall, got the idea for it after noticing that his son was having trouble remembering his multiplication tables but had memorized the lyrics to several rock songs.

Rosen said his 9-year-old and 14-year-old were able to sing the chorus to "The Fracking Song" after hearing it just once, in part because it’s so catchy.

“It is also had some humor in it, which mixes with the serious subject without being offensive, and I think it's fun to watch,” Rosen said. “I also think there's another message: it's cool to be informed, and not just for wonks. Music helps with that.”

Music isn't always the best approach for explainers. The form of the explainer depends in large part on the subject, Holmes said.

“I think you have to be careful about trivializing an issue with a song," he said. "Something like the tsunami in Japan, or something where there's a huge loss of life might not be appropriate. You have to be really sensitive about those topics.”

Holmes said the comments he’s gotten about "The Fracking Song" have been mostly positive, aside from a few commenters who don’t think fracking is an issue.

He's heard from people who say they want to use the song to raise awareness about how fracking is affecting their communities. He's also heard from scientists who thought the song did a good job of breaking down a complicated issue that they’ve tried to help people understand for years.

“I hope as more stories come out about fracking,” Holmes said, “people can come back to this song and get a little more context to understand the story – and to care.”

  • Mallary Jean Tenore

    As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website,, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the site's live chats. I also help handle the site's social media efforts, and teach social media sessions on the side.


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