In the “post-truth” era, with mistrust between audiences and news publications an increasingly troublesome issue, outlets in Canada and around the world are working to create a better understanding of what their journalists write.
One recurring solution is explainer-style journalism. Varying in its look and how it’s labelled, these articles (and pop-ups and sidebars) give audiences breakdowns of important stories and, often, offer peeks into the processes that go into reporting stories. According to Kathy English, public editor at the Toronto Star, explainers fall under the umbrella of radical transparency.
“Journalism is the art of selection and it’s making judgements all day long. Journalists make judgements about what they cover, how they cover it, who they talk to. It’s about being able to explain their judgements to the people who consume their journalism.”
Beginning in fall 2018, the Globe and Mail started using primers to improve the information their stories convey and the transparency that builds up reader trust. Originally conceived by Susan Krashinsky Robertson, a reporter who covers marketing and media for the Globe, primers are in-article, expandable windows that give readers a brief explanation of a single topic that might not be universally understood.“It doesn’t really matter how engaged with the news or how intelligent someone is,” says Krashinsky Robertson. “Everyone has gaps in their knowledge and gaps in understanding when they’re reading a news story.”
An example of a topic that a primer might take up is tax-free savings accounts (TFSA). The Globe has a core audience of business-savvy readers who read a term like TFSA and don’t bat an eye. But for younger readers who aren’t as financially literate, a primer answers their questions quickly and efficiently. Since primers are embedded into the article, readers don’t have to search on their own, going down what Krashinsky-Robertson called “internet rabbit holes” that distract and take up time.
“The idea behind these was to provide a resource that’s optional; for people who feel like they need to catch up on a particular issue or need some more background to explain something better, it’s there but it’s not getting in the way of the reading experience,” says Krashinsky Robertson, who received a three-month leave in summer 2018 from her reporting duties to pursue the primer idea at the Globe’s innovation hub, Lab 351.
For journalistic transparency issues, primers are particularly useful. One of the first produced by Krashinsky Robertson during her time at Lab 351 was about the Globe’s protocol on anonymous sources, used to support her colleague Ann Hui’s reporting on sexual misconduct. The primer received positive feedback from readers, a sign Krashinsky Robertson says meant she was on the right track. “Where appropriate, it behooves us to explain more about how our processes work for people who want that transparency.”
The Globe also runs longer content that provides a similar, but deeper experience than the primers. Known as explainers, they are stand-alone articles used to support major stories and give readers more reporting context and background than just a single term or concept. Usually written by an editor, explainers read like bullet-points of who’s who or what’s what in a story. They’ve been published on topics like the Trans Mountain pipeline debate, Brexit and the SNC Lavalin affair.
Melissa Stasiuk, deputy head of programming at the Globe, says that explainers are focused on the readers who haven’t been with a story since the beginning of its life-cycle. “If there’s been six stories that we’ve written about this topic this week, but they’re only reading the sixth one, they haven’t read the previous five— how do we help those readers?”
Explainers have proven effective at bringing new readers into stories because they’re presented alongside main articles, which the Globe groups together in packages on the top of its homepage. “Having those explainer guides is really helpful,” says Stasiuk. “We’ve found that when we have two or three stories as opposed to one, the entire performance of the package is better— when readers see multiple stories about a topic, they’re more likely to read those stories together.”
Readers are also accessing them via entry points like search engines. “Often they way outperform on search compared to anywhere else. Which tells us that people are seeking out information,” says Stasiuk.
The paper has discussed placing the articles behind its paywall, but thought it better to make them as available as possible. “We see them more as a new–audience initiative, especially because we see them getting picked up so much on search. We hope that it’s a window for people into the Globe who might not otherwise look at us.”
Because the paper is working to include primers and explainers for a broad range of stories and topics, Krashinsky Robertson thinks most readers will find a use for them. “The whole idea is that the core business reader might not be super educated on the background of, say, Columbia’s peace deal with the FARC,” she says. “This is a niche tool in some ways, because it isn’t necessary for everyone, but across the board, one of them will be useful for almost everybody.”
Explainer-style journalism isn’t a Globe invention. The platform that’s associated with explanatory content is Vox. Explainers are at the heart of its journalism, to the extent there’s an entire section of the Vox website devoted to them.
Julia Belluz, senior health correspondent at Vox, says that her field in particular is well served by explainers because of how many misleading health articles get posted online. “The classic example is ‘coffee will help you live longer’ or ‘avocados are good for your heart’…these stories are put out on a daily basis,” she says. “There’s a flip-flopping of headlines: one day coffee is good for you; the next day it’s going to kill you quicker…So we’ve tried to establish at Vox a general practice that it’s OK to talk about new studies that have become part of the conversation, but you also want to situate that study in the body of research and what we know on a given subject.”
Vox does still put up traditionally formatted stories, but tries to reserve that content for breaking news. Belluz says that Explainer material can come later on because the research and digging behind it takes more time than a breaking story allows for.
Other publications, even those without explanatory content in their DNA, like Vox, are beginning to craft stories in the same vein. The Guardian has posted explainers on topics like the polar vortex and Venezuela’s presidential crisis. The New York Times has an entire section (The Upshot) on its site devoted to them, labelling explainers as articles that help readers understand the world better.
English says this sort of approach is an effective way to alleviate mistrust: “I’m a believer and an advocate that we can explain how journalism works, what we do, how we do it, why we do it with radical transparency.”