Searching for Context
Over at Poynter, Matt Thompson has some interesting thoughts (slightly changed from an earlier appearance at Newsless.org) about the traditional news story and how it fails readers. Thompson argues, using the current health-care furor as his example, that a news story has four key parts: what just happened; the longstanding facts; how journalists know what they know; and the things we don’t know. Unfortunately, most stories appearing in the paper leave out the last three key parts, or stuff the longstanding facts into a single paragraph low in the story. All we get is the wildly spinning weather vane of what just happened.
It’s an approach that touches a lot of issues bubbling beneath the surface. From the perspective Thompson explores, for instance, you can easily see why speechifying and trial balloons and endless spin are so effective: With the underlying story rarely explored, different sides of an issue only have to win the day’s news cycle and keep the weather vane spinning.
So what are Thompson’s proposed solutions? For the question of how we know what we know, he offers up this excellent Atul Gawande story about health care from the New Yorker. Gawande, he notes, structures his story as a quest narrative: He begins the story looking for answers, and lets us follow along with him as he tries to find those answers from Texas doctors and health-care experts. It’s indeed a winning form, for a number of reasons. For one thing it’s transparent. Gawande doesn’t begin claiming to be an expert but gradually reveals his expertise and experiences — he’s a medical doctor himself, and he shares a frightening anecdote about an injury to his infant son that’s not entirely to his credit. The quest narrative also makes us root for him — we want to find out the answers too, so when Gawande runs across a plain-talking cardiac surgeon who helps make things clearer, we share his satisfaction. (On the subject of tackling what we don’t know, Thompson passes along a very fine explainer from Politifact, which neatly lays out what’s yet to be decided in the health-care debate.)
It’s an interesting discussion; my question is how newspapers can put some of the potential answers into practice. Background explainers, topic pages and the like are becoming increasingly common in newspapers, and when they’re done well — which is to say, written and curated by an actual human being — they can be quite effective. The New York Times is particularly good at this — here’s the Times’s topic page on health-care reform. I rarely run across good, clear-eyed explainers about what isn’t known, like the Politifact article, and agree they’d be terrific additions to news coverage. (Martin Langeveld has explored similar territory in calling for a “content cascade” of news.)
But how do we integrate these things with the ephemeral news of the day? In my early days at WSJ.com, I specialized in rewrites of breaking news to add context drawn from the Journal archives — an attempt to address the problem Thompson explores. (Or at least part of it.) But I’m not sure how successful my lovingly detailed rewrites were — they tended to turn every story into a wannabe goat-choker. The Times’s topic page is quite good, but just try and reach it from this health-care story. (Go on. I double-dog dare you.) Topic pages, explainers, wikis and content cascades are excellent tools that could put ephemeral news stories into a larger context, but they won’t work if they’re afterthoughts in the presentation of a story, only reached by the lucky few who find the correct link in a sea of blue type. For me, the key point here is the need to experiment with new ways to use basic news stories to drive readers to the larger narratives that give them more-useful information.
And, of course, not every news story can be a quest narrative: Gawande’s Texas adventures are compelling, but your City Council reporter doesn’t have the time or space for a quest narrative, and readers would probably want to kill him if he tried it. I think the lesson here is to let reporters and writers be real people. Let readers see them through video and hear them through podcasts. Have them interact with readers through discussions and social media. Get them to offer further expertise and background through beatblogging. Be transparent and real, and perhaps their larger beats can become quest narratives, with the reader along for the ride.