These days journalists have to know how to do everything -- video, audio, text. But not many people would add song-writing to the list of desirable skills -- let alone suggest that the newsroom investigative team should get a lead singer and a video clip. But have a look at this -- the Fracking song, or My Water's On Fire Tonight. It is a song written and posted to YouTube, but intended as a guide and an entree to a big, complicated and important piece of journalism by the not-for-profit investigative team at ProPublica. If you read the lyrics on the New York University site you will find them hotlinked to the key episodes in the ProPublica investigation. The Fracking song is one example of an old form of journalism made new again -- the explainer. To quote the New York University site:
"An explainer is not 'everything you need to know about X'. It’s not a shortcut to becoming an armchair expert. But it is the starting point, the big picture, the tiny bundle of information that gives users the context to appreciate and understand the most challenging and rewarding works of journalism."
The song doesn’t take the place of the rich detail and complicated facts that you will find in the investigation itself here but it does draw you in -- and gives you a summary of the story so far, in easily digestible fashion. It explains without talking down, and that surely, is part of the role of journalism. So this episode of my series is about explaining. Explanatory journalism is not particularly new. We have always had pieces in our newspapers labelled things such as "background". Journalism text books have always suggested that somewhere in a story or a script, there needs to be the paragraph that contains, not new information but the nuggets of context that bring the reader up to date. When I was a cadet, I was told that I should write news stories in such a way that someone just arriving from Mars could understand what was going on. The story should contain within it everything the reader needed to know to understand the news. I relayed this to my journalism students recently when they were writing about the redevelopment of a local leisure centre, and was greeted with the entirely fair question "if someone has just arrived from Mars, why are we writing about a leisure centre?" Top of the class for news sense. But despite the longevity of the concept, explanatory journalism earns its place in this series on journalistic innovation for two reasons: first, the world is ever more complex, and somewhere along the line we have lost sight of the confusion, not only of the mythical reader from Mars, but of our neighbours and fellow citizens. Second, new media has brought with it an arsenal of new tools that can be used to explain better, and for longer, than ever before. A website, a tool or a video clip can exist alongside the news for as long as it is needed, hotlinked and updated constantly. While concise writing remains a virtue, space is no longer a limitation. Flipping through the morning newspaper, most stories require more explanation than old media can easily provide. To take just the past few weeks as an example, how many people really understand why the Australian dollar is high, and the impact this is having on the economy? Or the things the Reserve Bank takes into account when setting interest rates? Or the pros and cons of the government paying pensioners to install set-top boxes (which is related to all sorts of concepts such as the digital dividend that make no sense to recently arrived Martians). Yet story after story is written assuming that the reader holds the necessary background knowledge to understand these issues. We write as though people have been following the news closely, when the truth is that most people are Martians, in the sense that on many news stories they came in half way through the movie, so to speak, or missed some key episodes of the series. If people don’t understand the news from major news organisations, then they are hardly likely to read it, engage with it or regard it as essential to their lives. Rather, they will get bored and frustrated. If they sense this, reporters have two choices: write more trivia that does not require explanation, or get better at and more willing to explain things. Both these things are happening, but with this episode I hope to give a boost to the latter. Surely one of the problems with political reporting these days (on which I wrote at greater length in a previous episode is that most of the big issues require explanation, and that takes too long and is potentially boring. So reporters (some of whom don’t understand the issues themselves) resort to the easier trick of race calling, he-said-she-said journalism and writing about personalities. I written spoken before about the dearth (with notable exceptions) of explanation about the National Broadband Network in the lead-up to the last federal election. Yet this turned out to be THE issue that decided the result, thanks to the independents’ attachment to the plan. So explaining issues is hard, and too often we don’t bother, even with important issues. And that’s even before we get to the biggest story of them all -- climate change. That’s a story the mainstream media have reported and reported and reported again, and yet somehow have failed to adequately inform the community. We haven’t been up to the challenge, which means misinformation still gets a run and is believed. It isn’t all journalists’ fault, of course. The facts are painful and it isn’t surprising people back away from them. But it is worth noting that the media events that have created the most sense of urgency, not least Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, have been more than anything else examples of explanatory journalism. They have not necessarily contained new information, but they have spoken to the people who haven’t been paying attention to date -- the Martians of the news cycle. Many news organisations are now using the new media tools for explanatory work. I have noticed that the new Fairfax iPad applications, for example, have included rudimentary time lines and interactive graphics that make it possible to swipe your way through the facts in a story. Even Crikey has made some efforts with the Crikey Clarifiers that seek to background the issues of the day. But some organisations are dedicating themselves to the explanatory agenda with more concentration and purpose, pushing it as a genre that can, when well used, overcome the apparent incapacity of journalism to truly get to grips with the big, complex issues -- including the biggest story of them all. Between December 2009 and February last year, Google, The New York Times and The Washington Post were experimenting with new formats for news that went beyond the tyranny of the inverted pyramid, which dictates that the first paragraphs must always contain new information. The project, called The Living Story, can still be seen, mothballed, here. The result was an open source package that can be picked up and used by any news organisation -- or individual for that matter -- who has the content and the desire. The idea was to combine and present all the news coverage on a running story on a single page. Each living story begins with a clearly written summary paragraph, with hotlinks, of the story so far. This is followed by a clickable timeline that leads to summaries of story developments, with more links to the detailed coverage, including text, video and photos. The Living Story keeps track of what the user has already read, and the page highlights the changes and new updates since the user's last visit. Take a look at the Living Story on climate change around the Copenhagen summit as an example. Since then, the idea of using the endless capacity of a web page to provide standing "explainers" has taken a grip. Look at a more recent example -- The Guardian's Ultimate Climate Change FAQ, which is a real, substantial and rigorously balanced contribution to making the issue understandable. (Having said that, it can be a little dull. Perhaps it needs a song.) The Guardian FAQ was the recipient last month of an explainer award -- bestowed by New York University project called The project has partnered with ProPublica and the ABC to experiment and promote explainer journalism. The Fracking song is just one example. I have written about what the ABC is doing with this genre before. Here are some of the other examples that have received awards. There is this brilliantly simple Associated Press  interactive explainer for the recent US budget woes -- what the cuts were, which ones were real and which ones confected, the timeline for the budget crisis, and an explanation of how the passage of a budget is meant to work. I hope we will see an Australian version of this by the time our next budget is presented. I love the fact that it includes a statement of how the process is meant to work. So many important news stories lie in the gap between what is meant to happen -- what the rules and procedures say -- and what is actually happening. Yet, frequently, journalists are so preoccupied with the aberrations -- the times that processes go wrong -- that they neglect to provide background on how things are meant to work (and mostly do). Here’s another award winner -- an example from Google that educates in story-book format on the potential of browsers and the web. Or you can look at Slate’s history of the Tea Party in just four minutes, which slams an immense amount of information into a very short time space by using jokes and animation -- proof that an explainer doesn’t have to be dull. We saw a nice Australian example of this capacity to crowd information into video recently on Hungry Beast. Sam Roggeveen drew my attention to it here. Back to the more serious issues, and there is this Mother Jones' explainer for the Egyptian uprisings. It is now in mothballs, but contains updates until February this year. How many were completely taken by surprise by the uprisings in the Middle East? Mother Jones begins with this admirably crystal-clear explanation, that assumes no knowledge yet avoids talking down. You can see the updates inserted.
"Egypt is a large, mostly Arab, mostly Muslim country. At around 80 million people, it has the largest population in the Middle East and the third-largest in Africa. Most of Egypt is in North Africa, although the part of the country that borders Israel, the Sinai peninsula, is in Asia. Its other neighbors are Sudan (to the South), Libya (to the West), and Saudi Arabia (across the Gulf of Aqaba to the East). It has been was ruled by Hosni Mubarak since from1981 until February 11."
The explainer continues with a concise background written in FAQ format, before linking to sources of up to date information. This is a reverse of the inverted pyramid. It begins with OLD NEWS, and then travels towards the new. And, it should be noted in passing, it is possible that the web has grown us an important new format for explainer news reporting -- the FAQ. This format has been used in explainers by The Guardian, Mother Jones and many others. Wikipedia has a nice history of the FAQ format, dating it to 1647 and an explainer about witches!  But in recent times it has more commonly been used in tech explanations online. Now, it comes into its own as a journalistic explainer format. Another nice, and crystal-clear explainer example, is the CBS take on the difference between deficit and debt, in February this year. Wouldn’t it be nice to have this sort of crisp explanation on the web to accompany the hectares of coverage given to the economy? "Put simply, the deficit is the amount that the government's spending exceeds its revenues -- the amount it takes in -- in a given year. Let's say the United States takes in $10 billion in a particular year, but it spends $15 billion. The deficit for that year is thus $5 billion. (The actual figures are, of course, far larger -- the budget deficit in fiscal year 2010 was $1.29 trillion.)" The debt, meanwhile, is what you get when you add up all these yearly deficits - it's the total amount that America owes. Each year's budget deficit, then, adds to the total debt figure, which is currently more than $14 trillion.” That’s a real contribution to the understanding of most citizens, I’d guess. But again, how many will click through? Perhaps this, too, needs a song. This is the fifth episode of my series on innovation in journalism. You can find previous episodes here. And, as a PS, I woke this morning to find The Australian’s media commentator, Mark Day, has taken umbrage at my suggestion that games might be a part of journalistic futures. I’ll respond to him on my blog later today. I expect that the idea of journalistic songs will also horrify him. *Next week: using the knowledge of the audience