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FixGov

Explanatory journalism: A tool in the war against polarization and dysfunction

Thomas E. Mann

This post is part of our project examining the importance of explanatory journalism. The introductory post is available here, and the second post on journalism in the digital age is available here

In the present-day world of media and politics, we live (as the saying goes) in the best of times and the worst of times.

A motivated consumer of information on politics and policy—the ideal citizen in a representative democracy—has access to an unprecedented number of sources of excellent journalism in a rich variety of formats and on numerous platforms. These include print, broadcast and online, long-form and short, data-based and graphically visualized, straight news and opinion journalism, legacy news organizations and new digital enterprises, mobile devices and social media, only a click away from direct access to vast repositories of official public documents and datasets. The digital revolution has laid waste to the 20th century business models of news reporting and publication but even in these early days of the digital revolution, citizens seeking information about politicians, public policy, and government performance have resources never before imagined.

But how many such model citizens take advantage of these resources to exercise the popular sovereignty and democratic accountability at the core of our democracy? Most citizens are inadvertent consumers of news about politics and government, limited mostly to local television news dominated by crime, traffic and weather, with mere snippets of news related to public affairs, along with emails from family and friends forwarding materials that sound plausible but often are the opposite. Their lives are filled with responsibilities and interests that draw their attention away from election campaigns and policy battles. What little they know and learn about politics is often laden with misinformation and provides little basis for coming to public judgment beyond group identities, tribal loyalties and fleeting impressions of candidates and officeholders.

There is no magic media elixir to inform and engage those, including perennial nonvoters, so removed from the public life of the nation. But some division of labor is essential and inevitable in a representative democracy—between the general public and elected officials, but also between the entire citizenry and the tens of millions of citizens who engage in more active and demanding forms of political participation, including reading about and discussing public affairs with their fellow citizens. That is the target audience for explanatory journalism.

American democracy has come under severe strains in recent years. We’ve seen a precipitous decline of trust in its central political institutions, the radicalization of one of its two major political parties, a vehement oppositional politics in Congress that has turned divided party government into a graveyard for nominations, while turning legislative initiatives and congressional oversight into little more than a weapon of partisan warfare. All of this has been capped off with the emergence of a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination uniquely miscast for the office whose election would constitute a threat to American democracy and make a mockery of the U.S. leadership position in the world.

The roots of America’s dysfunctional politics are deep and complex. For our purposes here, it is sufficient to say that the media has done little to help the public understand what is amiss. An aggressively partisan talk radio, cable news, web and social media community has fueled a tribal politics that traffics in lies and conspiracies. The mainstream media has handcuffed itself out of fear of charges of partisan bias into antiseptic balanced treatment of both sides in spite of their obvious asymmetries. This pattern of false equivalence has served to reinforce a generalized, inchoate public distemper, one that is vulnerable to radical and anti-democratic appeals.

Explanatory journalism aspires to provide essential context to the hourly flood of news—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. It is fact-based and data-rich but doesn’t shy away from making arguments that flow from the evidence—even at the risk of being charged with taking sides. It seeks to unravel the mysteries of policy and politics with historical and empirical context and speak openly and honestly about the stakes and drivers of our public life.

Ezra Klein pioneered two path breaking initiatives in explanatory journalism, first The Washington Post’s Wonkblog and now Vox.com. Many other news organizations are now embedding the elements of this approach into the routines of the news business. As David Leonhardt notes in the video part of this series, explanatory journalism will be successful when it is no longer a separate operation of news organizations but a central and unnamed part of their ongoing operations.

While it is no panacea for what ails American democracy, explanatory journalism is the most promising development in the rapidly changing world of media and politics.

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