Legos, quizzes, and tweetstorms: these are some of the tools and presentations of facts that the American Press Institute highlights as exemplary uses by leaders in accountability journalism, in the API’s latest report on “how to make the best of journalism better for audiences.”
The 58-page report examines how accountability journalism — which it defines as “work that encompasses fact-checking, explanatory and investigative reporting, but more generally applies to the journalistic work of holding the powerful accountable” — can be realigned to provide better context for audiences and have a better shot at finding a solid reception from readers. The authors of the report — Jane Elizabeth, Lori Kelley, and Julie M. Elman — say journalism right now has the opportunity to go deeper and farther than just explainers: “You might call it the recording of information in a more accessible manner: emphasizing the non-narrative, data, or visual elements made possible by digital news. By whatever name, the key goal is to offer a more accessible path for audiences to understand and accept new information, especially when it involves civic affairs and public debate.”
The report includes a portfolio of examples in this recoded accountability journalism notion, such as the Tampa Bay Times’ Lego project laying out a controversial transportation plan, political messaging app Baltimore Sun’s interactive tour and quizzes to go through the details of an investigation into local housing courts, and ProPublica’s edited tweetstorms that aim to counter misinformation as it happens. The API report goes in-depth with leaders of each explainer’s effort and also shares advice for other newsrooms to implement them.
Elizabeth, Kelley, and Elman also include target areas in the journalism process to “recode” and recommendations from experts for how to make that happen. Here are some condensed snippets:
1. Your audience.
How well do you know your audience? Do you know what they understand, don’t understand and would like to know more about? ‘If someone gave me $10 million to study explainer journalism,’ says [New York University professor Jay] Rosen, ‘the first thing I would do is to engage in a massive act of listening.’ This ‘big listen’ needs to encompass issues and questions that aren’t typically asked, Rosen says. For instance, asking the usual ‘What are the important issues in this election?’ is not the same as ‘What would you like the candidates to be discussing now?’ says Rosen…
2. Data and visualization
[Cognitive neuroscience expert Tali] Sharot for one argues that, in teaching and learning, ‘Figures are better than text. They’re easier to process, they’re quicker to process, they grab our attention.’ And charts made from that data can have more impact on readers, research indicates…Try to find reliable data that supports a point on which most people can agree. For instance: ‘That project will cost us a lot of money’…
3. Storytelling and facts
Using facts and data is important especially in controversial or complex stories, but as On The Media host Brooke Gladstone said on a recent show, context is just as essential. ‘Make sure that those facts can fit into the lives of people who don’t agree with you,’ said Gladstone. ‘In other words, you have to place them in a context, you have to explain their relevance and then you have to wait’ for indications of understanding….
4. Emotion and impact
Jake Halpern, an author of the fully reported graphic narrative, Mohit Mamoria recently explained the complexities of Blockchain using computer-generated characters and simple drawings.
As artists and designers know, even typography can signify certain emotions. Writer and designer Ben Hersh recently looked at the messages sent by particular typefaces and warned: ‘Typography can silently influence…and it can do this as powerfully as the words it depicts’…
5. Words matter
Projects that effectively present complex topics are often short on words, focusing instead on visuals. When a presentation isn’t ‘overwhelmed with large amounts of text and you are more willing to invest the time to read the information…before you know it, you have consumed the entire story and you’re surprised you have done so,’ says [Atlanta-based visual journalist Rick] Crotts…
6. Designing for shareability
Besides ensuring that the project looks good and works properly on social media platforms, Sharot notes that framing information in a positive or solutions-oriented manner will encourage more sharing.
‘People are more likely to share a positive message than a negative message’ — human nature, really, because positive messages reflect positively on the sharer, she said.