Explainers and Transparency

Since the recent unrest began in the Middle East, Mother Jones has gotten attention for their invaluable explainer posts like this one on Egypt. These posts do more than report on events. They begin by asking and briefly answering questions like “How did this all start?” and “Why Are Egyptians Unhappy?” It’s a deceptively simple format, but the posts go a long way to providing some basic context prior to reporting what’s new. The Wall Street Journal has a similar feature today on “How Nuclear Reactors work… And the Dangers When They Don’t”.

There’s a lot of room to experiment with these sort of explainer features. (Jay Rosen at NYU is leading a project that explores the issue in depth at Explainer.net.) But context is arguably trickier than news reporting when it comes to providing some level of “objectivity.” There are often multiple reports of what happened, but even more of why it happened.

So explainers will need to think extra carefully about how to update “objectivity” – a thorny subject under the best circumstances – to fit these features.

The excellent analysis offered by Mother Jones and WSJ reminded of a post I wrote about back in August: the magazine-reporter ethos. The original post is by Jim Henley, and here are his key points:

* original reporting on first-hand sources
* a frankly stated point-of-view
* tempered by a scrupulous concern for fact
* an effort to include a fair account of differing perspectives
* ending in a willingness to plainly state conclusions about the subject

It’s relatively easy to come up with rough guidelines like these, or these ones by Factcheck.org:

1. Keep an open mind
2. Ask the right questions
3. Cross-check
4. Consider the source
5. Weigh the evidence

And explainers would do well to incorporate these guidelines into their efforts. But I’d argue they need to go even further, beyond rough guidelines, and develop more detailed rules and descriptions of their process. There are lots of advocates of transparency in future-of-news circles, often as a substitute for “objectivity.” But too often those calling for transparency focus on explaining the writer’s perspective – I’m liberal, this is my worldview, etc. – and less on transparency of process – we consider x to be a more reliable source than y and shaped our analysis accordingly, etc. Let’s see more process transparency. And keep up the great explainer experiments.

* original reporting on first-hand sources
* a frankly stated point-of-view
* tempered by a scrupulous concern for fact
* an effort to include a fair account of differing perspectives
* ending in a willingness to plainly state conclusions about the subject