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Can explanatory journalism cure the internet?

Richard Fawal

This post is part of our project examining the importance of explanatory journalism. The first post in the series is available here.

Last December The Washington Post shuttered its online column “What was fake on the Internet this week.” For a little over eighteen months, columnist Caitlin Dewey, with a wry smile and a wink to the fantastic urban legends our society is capable of creating and our citizens are eager to believe, humorously debunked each week’s most entertaining and outrageous online hooey. However, as she perused the Internet for outrageous claims, she realized that misinformation isn’t just an innocent manifestation of the human penchant for mystery and myth; it’s also big business.

Today’s online hoaxers aren’t just after a laugh. Their brand of bunk has a clear purpose: generating Internet traffic by appealing to people’s deepest emotional biases. Sometimes they do it for political purposes, as when the “fiercely conservative” website Revive America published an article claiming that ABC had aired “A Charlie Brown Christmas” with a disclaimer that the program contained “strong Christian messages and may be offensive to some viewers.” Other times it’s for profit, often disguised as good will, such as self-titled “Food Babe” Vani Hari’s campaign to get Starbucks to stop selling pumpkin spice lattes because they contain no pumpkin. Enough people believe these ridiculous falsehoods to share them on Twitter and Facebook over and over again, gaining Revive America a flood of new readers and Vani Hari temporary star status.

For Dewey and The Post, playing whack-a-mole with this kind of Internet misinformation wasn’t what they had set out to do. “This column wasn’t designed to address the current environment,” Dewey said about “What was fake…” in her final post. “This format doesn’t make sense.”

The demise of the feature is indicative of one of the more frustrating challenges faced by traditional media in the Information Age. In a world where myth and misinformation can travel quite literally at the speed of light, traditional media struggle to keep up with digital competitors who use “click bait” tactics to capture readers, and who have little regard for the accuracy of their content. In this environment, how does solid, fact-based journalism survive? Is there even an audience for that kind of content anymore?

Increasingly, players from media icons to entrepreneurially minded journalists believe the answer to the latter question is “yes,” and they see serving that audience as a new opportunity for explanatory journalism—a style of reporting that explains an issue in a straightforward, accessible style. Ezra Klein’s Vox, “The Upshot” at The New York Times, and BuzzFeed are a few examples, but there are prominent examples outside of traditional news as well.

For example, one could be forgiven for assuming the podcast Stuff You Should Know, with episode titles like “How does a diving bell work?” and “How Mortgage-backed Securities Work,” is popular with only the nerdiest of nerds. In fact, it is one of the most listened-to podcasts in the world, and it is pure explanatory journalism. The hosts, Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant, chat about topics from the fascinatingly morbid (“What is a body farm”) to the completely obscure (“How Electroconvulsive Therapy Works”). The show is so popular it has spawned live tours and even a short-lived television series. It’s hard to look at SYSK’s success and argue there’s no market for explanatory content.

Aside from pure market considerations, the renewed interest in explanatory journalism—and it is by no means a new phenomenon: there’s been a Pulitzer for the category since 1985—is a rational and necessary response to the overwhelming levels of misinformation on the Internet. Consider, for example, coverage of the January 2015 measles outbreak linked to the Disneyland amusement park, in which scores of people across several states were diagnosed with the disease. Vox addressed the issue with a story titled “There’s a measles outbreak at Disneyland. Here’s what you need to know.” It had three main points: Measles is extremely infectious, the anti-vaccine movement may contribute to the uptick in cases, and global traffic may also be a factor. The reporting clearly and accurately described the disease and the most important facts about it and the outbreak.

Meanwhile, over at NaturalNews.com, the headline was “Afraid of the Disneyland measles outbreak? Don’t be fooled by Mickey Mouse science—READ THIS FIRST.” The article offered little information about measles or the outbreak, apart from mentioning that “only 644 people” had contracted measles in 2014, and that “the Disneyland outbreak, at last count, was just 39 people.” What it did offer was a detailed breakdown of the language in an informational insert from a chicken pox vaccine (the kind of small-print pharmaceutical details you often find in prescriptions) calling out every single potential side effect and any precautionary legalese to convince the reader that vaccines are just a big, scary lie.

It’s important to understand that this difference in reporting isn’t rooted in competing opinions or alternative viewpoints. It’s rooted in money. Vox is a news site. Reporting news is its business. NaturalNews.com, despite its name, is not a news site. It’s a commerce site that sells alternative health care products. Its writings are not meant to inform. They’re meant to enrage, so that its readers will trust the products it sells instead of mainstream health care.

Caitlin Dewey was right: blog posts aren’t the right format for addressing the phenomenon of money-driven online misinformation. A more comprehensive solution to poppycock-for-profit is necessary. Explanatory journalism could be that solution by fulfilling one of the most fundamental responsibilities of the press: fact-based, rational reporting that helps all of us better understand and participate in our world.

Author

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Richard Fawal

Associate Vice President for Communications at Brookings

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