Closing the Information Gap

In journalism school, we were taught to answer the five questions: who, what, when, where, and why (or, in my Southern class, “what for”). Journalists ideally accomplish this through stellar writing and composition of story, regardless of whether or not it’s an inverted pyramid. But what if journalists went beyond the story and answered how the reporting happened?

I happened to stumble across this CNN article while doing research, and my eyes were immediately drawn to something I hadn’t seen before on a mainstream news site: explaining parts of the issue that the article was covering.

What is particularly significant is the upfront questions that readers might already have, answered quickly and succinctly without needing to scan the entire story for those answers first. This is kind of the opposite of what we’ve been taught, right? Hook them with the lede — get them to keep reading. But there’s much more we can do with digital. You don’t have to have your reporting entirely outlined in walls of text; we see this with listicles and GIF-accompanied news items.

What if we took CNN’s example a step further? What if we explained the process in which the story was made? Promoting transparency at a point in time where trust in the media is at an all-time low cannot be understated; it is time for journalism organizations to also take the responsibility of opening up admission to the ivory tower for readers.

The vision is simple: let readers know the process and remind them of it.

The questions can be relatively standard and simple:

  • Why are we reporting this?
  • Who did we interview?
  • How did we find people to talk to?
  • Where were we initially alerted to this story?

The questions should be answered by the reporter or editor who is the closest to the story to provide the best understanding of the subject and process in which the reporting was carried out. These may even seem like “duh” questions to reporters, especially after writing a story. However, reading a story does not mean comprehending a story, nor does it mean that that reader understands the journalism process. In fact, I would surmise that many do not. Especially in the way that journalism is often conducted (e.g. presenting one side of an argument/issue, then presenting the other side), biases are often reinforced by readers without taking into account the larger picture or the process in which information is displayed to them.

To see this laid out, I mocked up quickly what this may look like on a story in The Washington Post. (Please note everything within the “Behind the Story” square is entirely made up by me, 100 percent falsified, to give an example.)

An image of a Washington Post article with a section for explaining the reporting

Now to get into the gritty of it for developers: this can either be in a floating div or even a sticky-positioned element that would follow readers along, but if you think of another option, please share. For new developers: this is an easy implementation, especially if your publication is using a plugin-friendly CMS like WordPress. Custom fields would be necessary in WordPress in order to display based on the post itself rather than needing to code in a specific div for every post unnecessarily, but calling from a custom field into the theme itself is the easiest part.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter the implementation. It could even be a blurb before the story actually begins if that’s what makes sense for your publication. Not every story even calls for some of the questions: if in the article itself, the reporting process is described, just including additional information in a “Behind the Story”-esque box or display is beneficial for readers to get the entire story.

I must make the caveat here that this is not about journalists needing to defend themselves in their reporting. This is about a greater accountability and transparency that will allow readers to trust the process and reporters when it comes to getting the story. There is only so much that we can do, maintaining the current processes and same digital displays as readers continue to distrust the media. While this isn’t a fix for everything, it is an addition that is quickly implementable, not much additional work by reporters, and provides so much — within so little — to readers.

Questions to Ask

  1. What do you think about reporters giving additional explanations to their reporting?
  2. Would this idea enrich the content or take away from the story itself?
  3. How can newsrooms increase transparency with readers/viewers?
  4. Are readers entitled to know how a story was formed? Why or why not?

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