Monday, March 10th, 2014

Eleven Questions About Explainer Journalism

What is an “explainer”?

There are a lot of things out there to read. Some of them are long. Many involve complex, nuanced ideas. That doesn’t have to be the case. When it is the case, it’s a failure of journalists to make news engaging and accessible. An explainer is an article that breaks down an important topic into just the things you care about and need to know. It's unlike all other kinds of articles in that way. If you still can’t understand it, that’s on us. That’s our bad.

How do I know what I care about and what I need to know?

Explainers tell you. We are all over this. All you have to do is read words and then click a button to share with your friends. (Facebook is better than Twitter.) Don’t like words? There will be simple charts and neat vids. It’s that simple.

Huh I don’t get it?

That’s fine! We didn’t think you would. Traditional media outlets aren’t equipped to explain most topics to people like you. Let’s see if we can break it down further—just the basics now. What is it you really need to know about explainers.

I don’t know.

Oh, sorry! That was rhetorical. I mean, that was a statement that might have sounded like a question, but it was not. Okay. Now, try and remember the last time you read a news article in its entirety. See, you can’t. You never have. Or the last time you thought, “I understand what’s happening in the Ukraine well enough to make a smart comment about it at a party.” You can’t. Obviously nobody explained to you not to say "the" Ukraine either. Understanding all you need to understand would take literally hours of reading about history. You’re going to click away to watch dogs on treadmills. Who says you can’t have both? Can dogs on treadmills explain international conflicts?

I hope so, that’d be neat. I could get into that.

So let’s say you want to know about something, but it’s an oo-ey gooey topic. Like, it’s super gross. Maybe it’s about something that’s happening on the whole other side of the world and will never affect you in any tangible way. It’s like, you know, Internet vegetables. No one wants to eat vegetables, and no one should have to. Explainers turn those vegetables into delicious sweets. Remember how your mom used to say you can’t just eat cookies all day? Well, you’re a grown-up now, and we say you can eat those cookies all day.

I like cookies.

We know. We know you do. We like when you like them. We like watching you like them.

I love your real smart idea. What about important issues, I want to care about them?

Yes, you do. It’s great to care about important issues. Deep down you are a compassionate, profoundly intellectual person. You deserve the opportunity to share articles that reflect that.

i lke cookies!

You bet.


Exactly. That is such an important issue. You are really getting it now.

I like to read. Health care is v import

It seems we’ve succeeded in getting you to understand this.

ow hit my face on desk

That’s on us. We failed to keep you engaged.

James Hamblin is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

2 Comments / Post A Comment

Nick Douglas (#7,095)

More and more I draw the lesson not that we should all read 10-page articles to build our confident opinions on massive geopolitical happenings, but that we should stop acting like we know shit about anything we haven't studied or practiced for years.

Too frequently I read just enough "explainers" to process my own hamburger patty of understanding, then reheat that little mongrel patty for a curious friend or two, because neither of us are satisfied simply trusting those who are actually dealing with such issues to handle them without our invisible support. Our scrap of "understanding" of the issue is a secular equivalent to prayer—harmless at best, but often destructive as we feel we've accomplished something and no longer need to participate in the world beyond forming an opinion.

Of course, the only thing that revealed this sad truth to me was overhearing even worse-informed people trade misinformation and generalizations filtered through Neil-Postman-triggering worldviews cobbled from poor sources. Newsreading citizens, turn off your NYT text alerts. Unsubscribe from your link roundups. Cut down on the declarative sentences and read a book about something old.

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