Explainers, explained.

Have you been trying to keep up to date with what’s been going on around the world recently? Well then there’s a good chance you’ve come across pieces of explainer journalism.

But what are explainers and are they necessarily all their cracked up to be? Well wonder no more, Prismatic is here to explain.

Here to help is journalist Sarah Marshall, Head of Audience growth at Vogue International.

Having written her own article on explainers for the Wall Street Journal, Sarah is perfectly placed to help us break down the explainer.

So what is explainer journalism?

As Ashley Norris explained, whilst every day news reporting covers the essential ‘Who’, ‘What’, ‘Where’ and ‘When’ of a story, explainer journalism answers the questions ‘How’ and ‘Why’.

By breaking down a complicated news item to its most basic level, with all the relevant background information, audiences are better able to understand new developments. It’s only by laying down a solid foundation of understanding that journalists can build upwards on their audience’s knowledge.

So explainers act like a key, helping their audience unlock complicated stories which might be too complicated to understand without the necessary context.

But at this point you might be asking yourself, ‘haven’t journalists always explained stories?’ Well you wouldn’t be wrong to think so. Since 1998 there’s been a Pulitzer Prize category for ‘Explanatory Reporting’. So what does it take to win this award?

For a distinguished example of explanatory reporting that illuminates a significant and complex subject, demonstrating mastery of the subject, lucid writing and clear presentation, using any available journalistic tool”. – Pulitzer Prize

Whilst journalists might still be illuminating complex stories like they have been for years, what has changed is the platforms they’re able to do this on.

As described in the Economist, newspapers must to be cautious with every word, sentence and paragraph they print, because column space means money. But with digital publications, space is no longer an issue. Journalists have multiple mediums at their disposal. They can take all the time and space they need to fully break open their story.

What’s a good example of an explainer?

Explainers can come in all shapes and sizes, from podcasts to animated videos and even the more traditional text format.

This article from Niemanlab on the Cambridge Analytica story demonstrates just how well a story can be broken down into digestible pieces through the use of sub headings and well-structured content.

Data journalism also plays a huge part in the world of explainers. By unravelling complicated datasets and statistics with graphics, publications like The Upshot from the New York Times gives audiences a window into otherwise impenetrable data. This article from The Upshot uses moving graphics to decode a study which revealed the extent to which race determines later life chances.

Explainers can also come in the form of lists. CNN have utilised the list method to break down a day’s worth of news into 5 easy-to-understand segments. By varying topics in this way the audience is able to feel like they’ve gained a broader range of knowledge than if they just studied one story in-depth.

Launched in 2014 by Ezra Klein, Melissa Bell, and Matthew Yglesias, Vox is a website dedicated to explainer journalism.

“We live in a world of too much information and too little context. Too much noise and too little insight. And so Vox’s journalists candidly shepherd audiences through politics and policy, business and pop culture, food, science, and everything else that matters.” – Vox

With everything from articles to videos and even podcasts, Vox doesn’t turn down any opportunity for an explainer. Worldly, one of Vox’s many podcast series is a weekly look into foreign affairs and global issues.  Whilst international relations can often seem exceptionally complicated, journalists Yochi Dreazen, Jennifer Williams, and Zack Beauchamp are able to deconstruct these difficult topics with engaging discussion and revealing soundbites.

And last but not least, video explainers take full advantage of animation and visuals to make a topic accessible. Here the BBC have been able to break down the factious 7-year war in Syria.


Are audiences becoming dependent on explainers?

Journalists certainly aren’t short on complicated topics to cover, from Brexit to international trade wars there seems to be no end to the need for clarification and explanation. But this might have you wondering, are audiences become dependent on explainers to break down stories for them? Well, Sarah Marshall has the answer.

So it comes back to journalists having the capacity to properly explain things to their audience. How complicated a topic is doesn’t change, but the tools that journalists have at their disposal to explain them has developed and to keep their audience informed they’re going to keep using them.

What does the future hold for explainers?

Explainers have definitely found their place in online storytelling, but with constant fluctuations in how journalists reach their audience, explainers may have to adapt.

Social media sites have been a huge influence on how publishers pull their audience into particular stories. The 2017 Global Social Journalism Study found that 75 per cent of journalists thought that social media is “to a large extent” or “completely” necessary to promote and distribute their work.

But this isn’t necessarily a stable relationship. Facebook has been coming under a lot of pressure recently and their algorithm is set to change. This algorithm determines what type of content ends up in a user’s newsfeed, and content from media sites are expected to come second to posts from family and friends.

This means that short snappy explainer videos, designed especially for social media sites like Facebook might be about to take a hit.

So whilst explainers might have to adapt to a new social media landscape, it might mean that audiences start seeing more meaningful explainers instead of formulaic ones.

Feature image courtesy of: Jon S.

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