Explainers, Explained: Explanatory Journalism, and Why California Local Does So Much of It

How explanatory journalism helps bring some sense to media information overload.

PUBLISHED OCT 22, 2021 1:26 P.M.
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There's too much information these days. But explanatory reporting can help.

There's too much information these days. But explanatory reporting can help.   Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels   Pexels License

There was a time not too long ago—let’s call it “the 1970s”—when becoming a reasonably well-informed citizen was a manageable task. Important news of the day was packaged neatly in daily newspapers, and in easily digested, 30-minute nightly broadcasts on each of the three major TV networks. Local TV stations broadcast their own news hours, or half-hours, in the early evening, and again at 11 p.m., after the networks wrapped up their primetime entertainment programming.

Then, on July 1, 1980, Cable News Network (CNN) began broadcasting nationwide. The new channel carried news, and nothing but news, 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. In fact, CNN hasn’t slowed its firehose of around-the-clock information ever since.

The network represented the first step in a catapulting trend toward what exists today, a phenomenon significantly accelerated by the sudden explosion of the internet through the 1990s and 2000s—and continuing relentlessly now. That trend was toward something that could be called “information overload.”

Helping Readers Make Sense of the Overload

Cable TV, talk radio, the internet and its social media spawn have created an environment of total, nonstop information. What this new hyper-media-saturated society has not created, however, is an environment of understanding. How do we intellectually and emotionally process this endless waterfall of news? There are no guides.

All of the information in the world—and that’s what it feels like much of the time—is useless unless human beings, and human societies, have the ability to make sense of it. The results have become painfully clear as a flood of misinformation, disinformation and just plain bullshit has run rampant across American society, fueled by the internet and the rest of the nonstop media.

But even amidst this state of overwhelm, a form of journalism, recently rising to some degree of prominence, attempts to facilitate some degree of understanding by not simply reporting the news, but explaining it. This journalistic genre is called, appropriately enough, “explanatory journalism.”

Readers who have followed California Local, or those new to this outlet, will notice that a significant percentage of the articles are tagged with the label “Explainer.” They fall into the category of explanatory journalism.

What Explanatory Journalism Is Not

Media, even in the hypercharged internet era, is dominated by the same four types of traditional journalism as always. 

  • Straight news reporting, which is what most news consumers probably expect when they think of “journalism.” Basically, a reporter gathers information about an event—e.g., a presidential press conference, an earthquake, a football game, a murder—and composes a story conveying the most important facts about that event to the reader. Straight news reports are generally written in the “inverted pyramid” format, with the most important, broad information at the top of the story—the “five Ws,” that is, information detailing the “who, what, why, when, and where” of the event. Increasingly specific, granular detail is included  as the article goes on.
  • Investigative reporting is a type of journalism in which the reporter gathers and presents information well beyond the basic “five Ws,” in an attempt to uncover and report facts that would not be easily apparent to any observer. While straight news reporters react to events by recording the facts of what happened, investigative reporters do not necessarily accept those initial “facts” as the final word. As a Columbia Journalism School article put it, “investigative reporting means journalists go beyond what they have seen and what has been said to unearth more facts and to provide something new and previously unknown.”
  • Opinion journalism covers any type of journalism in which the author is free to express an undisguised opinion or point of view. Movie reviewers and theater critics, political columnists, editorial writers, sportswriters (in some cases), and—in the internet era—many bloggers on such platforms as Substack and Medium are examples of opinion journalists.
  • Feature writing is something of a hybrid, melding fact-gathering with a more literary style of narrative storytelling to convey what the writer hopes will be a fuller picture of a topic, event, or person. Features tend to have the longest word counts of any of the four main genres, though investigative reports can sometimes reach epic length.

Explanatory Journalism Focuses on the Nuance Behind the Facts

Explanatory journalism is none of the above—or all of them. An “explainer” could incorporate elements of any, all, or none of those four types to achieve its objective, which is to “provide essential context to the hourly flood of news,” according to a report on the rise of the form by the Brookings Institute. “Not simply a separate fact-checking operation but the mobilization of a rich array of relevant information made possible by new technology but presented to the public in accessible and digestible formats.”

According to John McDermott, an editor for the multimedia news outlet Digiday, “Explanatory journalism is a form of reporting that attempts to present nuanced, ongoing news stories in a more accessible manner.” The key concept there is “nuance.” While more traditional forms of journalism can seem like bulletin boards, posting fact after fact with no regard as to what it all means, explainers often explore the subtleties of a news story, the history, the cause and effect, and ultimately what it all means for you, the reader, and for society as a whole.

The Rapid Rise of Explanatory Journalism

According to Roy Peter Clark, vice president of the Poynter Institute—a nonprofit journalism institute in Florida—“though not named as such, explainers are as old as the journalism hills.” But they weren’t popularly known as “explanatory journalism” until the Pulitzer Prize committee began awarding prizes specifically for the category in 1985.

The first Pulitzer for explanatory journalism went to Jon Franklin of the Baltimore Evening Sun, for his seven-part series “The Mind Fixers,” which was “about the new science of molecular psychiatry.” In 2021, one of two prizes for explanatory journalism went to four Reuters reporters who authored a four-part series on the use of “qualified immunity,” a legal doctrine that protects police officers from abuse lawsuits. Atlantic reporter Ed Yong nabbed the other “explanatory” prize for his series about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even as the exponential growth of online media has turbocharged the spread of information (and misinformation), the internet has also played a significant part in the rise of explanatory journalism. As information overload created a desperate need for understanding, explanatory journalism emerged to meet that demand.

In 2013, a young Washington Post writer named Ezra Klein originated a feature on the paper’s website called Wonkblog, one of the first online outlets to focus on explanatory journalism. Klein left the Post the following year, and with fellow up-and-comers Matthew Yglesias and Melissa Bell founded the site Vox.com, an entire media outlet devoted almost exclusively to explaining the news rather than “breaking” it, or digging for investigative scoops.

The New York Times (Klein’s current employer) quickly followed the Vox.com lead, starting The Upshot, the Grey Lady’s own online showcase for explainers. By that time, Bloomberg News had already unveiled its explanatory site QuickTake. And Slate—one of the internet’s first full-featured online-only “magazines”—added its own ongoing feature, aptly titled The Explainer

What California Local Explanatory Journalism is All About

As Digiday’s McDermott observed, the generally more colloquial, informal tone common to online writing has also made the digital space a comfy home for explanatory journalism. Traditional print and even television news reporting strikes a tone of authority, as if the facts dispensed in newspapers or by stentorian TV anchors have been inscribed on stone tablets.

Explanatory journalism lends itself to greater fluidity and familiarity—the better to get across the nuances or subtleties of a topic, treating the person on the other end as a listener more than a reader. An explainer might weave in elements of historical background, narrative, forward-looking speculation, anecdote and even occasional humor, in order to make the subject accessible. Of course, facts are facts and explainers must be, like all journalism, thoroughly researched and accurate. Beyond that basic requirement, in an explainer, whatever works.

At California Local, explainers focus—as you may have guessed—on subjects that directly affect Californians. Some explanatory pieces focus on an essential aspect of local government infrastructure—such as water, fire protection, and education—that affects daily life in ways that most of us rarely think about. Others take on expansive, statewide developments, such as police reform legislation, the state’s response to the COVID pandemic, or the ongoing housing crisis.

Whatever the topic, California Local explainers are designed to help you, the reader, better understand life in this state, to go beyond what is happening here to why. The next step is to take that understanding and use it to improve life in California—to fix what’s broken, and take the things that do work well and make them even better. We hope that by offering thorough and accessible explanations of California issues, our explainers will lead to Californians becoming even more involved and thoughtful about our state.

But that part is up to you.

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