How to improve your explanatory reporting
Now more than ever, journalists must find novel ways to tell stories and add context to the news.
Writing "explainers"--pieces that break down often complicated or obscure issues--forces reporters to think outside traditional news reporting tactics. A recent post by Poynter's Meena Thiruvengadam offers advice on how to approach explainers to maximize their effect on audiences:
Go beyond the basics
Slate Science and Health Editor Laura Helmuth told Thiruvengadam that explainers should hit on unexpected territory and diverge from the standard questions (who, what, when, where and why). “In this age of Google, the trick is to have an unanswered question that requires more than a fact to explain,” Helmuth said. Because setting out to unveil a fresh batch of information can be daunting, it's good to identify a starting point. NPR Planet Money’s Jacob Goldstein told Thiruvengadam that he looks for trends and themes in the news, and narrows down issues that warrant further exploration. He also suggests picking through data for ideas. “You sort of swim around in it for a while and try to find something interesting,” Goldstein said.
Don't be afraid to ask a stupid question
Journalists embarking on an explainer piece should adopt the old teacher's mantra: "There's no such thing as a stupid question." Brian Palmer, Slate’s chief explainer, told Thiruvengadam that he often asks librarians to excavate books on bizarre topics and poses uncomfortable questions when interviewing experts. "You’ve got to lose your sense of shame a little bit,” Palmer said. “Some of the questions are sort of embarrassing to ask, but you have to ask them anyway.” Explains the Guardian's Heidi N. Moore, "If you don't educate yourself on it, you can't educate anyone else."
When tackling complex issues with many moving parts, it's important to develop a format that won't overwhelm readers. For example, the Guardian's Moore told Thiruvengadam that she leads with a compelling piece of information, and leaves the details for later. Palmer of Slate said he starts with a question, provides a quick answer, and then gets more specific further down in the piece. "“The crucial thing is to nail the simple question and to write it in a way that doesn’t require any background knowledge” of the reader, Palmer said.
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