Explainer.net to teach journos how to explain better

ProPublica and New York University launch Explainer.net, which aims to improve the way journalists explain their stories.

Investigative journalism non-profit ProPublica has paired with New York University’s innovation in journalism program Studio 20 to launch a new project called Building a Better Explainer (Explainer.net), which will experiment with new ways of explaining the complex stories journalists are often tasked with telling.

“Explainers” take different forms — i.e. sidebars, infographics, FAQs — but all serve to provide “the essential background knowledge necessary to follow events in the news,” NYU prof Jay Rosen says in a press release posted to his blog, Press Think.

“An explainer is a work of journalism, but it doesn’t provide the latest news or update you on a story,” Rosen said. “It addresses a gap in your understanding: the lack of essential background knowledge. We wanted to work with the journalists at ProPublica on this problem because they investigate complicated stories and teach what they’ve learned to other journalists. It seemed like a perfect match.”

The lead story on Explainer.net today is “Three questions answered about WikiLeaks,” which provides an explanation about what diplomatic cables are and answers the question “What’s in the leaked diplomatic cables (and who cares)?”

According to the release, NYU graduate students will work with Rosen and the editors of ProPublica to:

* research best practices in explanatory journalism;
* collect relevant knowledge from other disciplines about how users absorb complex subjects;
* pick one of ProPublica’s major investigations and produce model explainers suitable for publication at ProPublica.org;
* experiment with different ways of delivering critical background knowledge, using all the tools of the web
* investigate how to make the explainer genre more interactive with web users;
* share their findings with ProPublica and the wider journalism world.

As part of the explanation of Explainer.net, Rosen quotes NPR’s Matt Thompson, who argues that understanding a story requires both the immediate ‘what happened’ and the historical context/”longstanding facts.”

Thompson writes:

“Hundreds of headlines wash over us every day. And part of why many of us engage in this flow is because we have faith that over time, this torrent of episodic knowledge is going to cohere into something more significant: a framework for genuinely understanding an issue…

“But mounting evidence indicates that this approach to information is actually totally debilitating. Faced with a flood of headlines on an ever-increasing variety of topics, we shut off. We turn to news that doesn’t require much understanding – crime, traffic, weather – or we turn off the news altogether.

“It turns out that in order for information about things like the public option and budget reconciliation to be useful to you, you need a certain amount of systemic knowledge to be able to parse it. You need an [effective] framework for understanding health care reform before the episodic headlines relating to health care reform make any sense”

Rosen writes:

“So that’s what we are going to try to do. We will start by researching what’s working now, and by going beyond journalism to fields that might know something journalists should know. In the spring of 2011, we’ll devote a whole graduate course (18 students, two instructors, plus consultants) to producing explainers that we hope ProPublica can publish, as well as a kind of tool kit to make the task easier. At the project site, explainer.net, we’ll post highlights from our research, solicit help, and publish interviews with thinkers and do-ers who are pushing the practice forward.”