The Virtues of Explanatory Journalism

By Jack Limpert

The Washington Post has a full page in today’s Sunday paper that tries to explain what’s happening in Syria, everything from “What Is Syria” to “How did it all go so wrong in Syria?” to “Why hasn’t the United States fixed this yet?” The story’s headline: “Questions About Syria You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask.”

Yeah, the page does have some of the flavor of the “KidsPost” feature the paper runs on Fridays.

But Post editors might rethink their assumption that its readers are so smart and well-informed that they’d be embarrassed to be caught reading a story that tries to simply and clearly explain an important issue.

As a monthly magazine editor, I always read four daily newspapers—Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today—but also looked forward to the three weeklies—Time, Newsweek, U.S. News—hoping that the newsmagazines would help me better understand complicated issues. U.S. News folded in 2010, Newsweek quit last year, and Time now is a sadly skinny publication that seems more interested in soft features (“Pop’s Drop: From Madonna to Miley”) and less interested in hard news.

On Fridays I sometimes look at the KidsPost feature, hoping it might take me by the hand and very simply explain an idea or issue. On many big subjects, I think lots of readers are the equivalent of seventh graders, trying to understand an increasingly complicated world.

There are lots of journalism awards out there. Give the Pulitzers credit–an example of good explanatory journalism is honored each year. But an attempt  by several editors to try to get the American Society of Magazine Editors to give an award for explanatory journalism as part of its National Magazine Awards fell on deaf ears.

Keep it up, Post editors. Let’s have more explaining—the simpler the better. Very few of your readers will be embarrassed by it.

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