Astonishment and Understanding:
On the Problem of Explanation in Journalism
Department of Communication Arts
Long Island University-C. W. Post Campus
Brookville, NY 11548
Internet: [log in to unmask]
This paper attempts to clarify the nature and reception of explanatory
journalism. It distinguishes journalistic explanation from news analysis,
interpretation, and investigation. Using rhetorical analysis of professional and
academic discourse and news texts, it reveals that explanatory journalism is
praised, reviled, evaded and not clearly understood. A clearer foundation for
explanatory journalism remains important, since this journalistic form
strengthens journalism's "enlightenment function" and is being called for by the
public with increasing clarity and urgency.
INTRODUCTION: IN SEARCH OF EXPLANATION
Print journalism routinely proclaims its ability to furnish daily news with
context, analysis, substance, understanding and backgroundDin short, proclaims
its explanatory power. And the claim seems intuitively credible. Print, with its
fixed, specific form, would seem to provide "more information," more carefully
and thoughtfully assembled, especially in comparison to short-form broadcast
media. So even Tom Curley, president and publisher of USA TODAY, hardly known as
a bastion of journalistic complexity, can intone that, "The Information Age must
amount to more than a dysfunctional stream of news columns or broadcasts
overflowing with crises from everywhere without perspective" ("Free Speech,"
1994, p. 3).
Yet when we consider journalism as analyzed over the last 30 years by a wide
variety of communications scholars and critics, a powerful tension reveals
between, on one hand, journalism's characteristic narratives, epistemology and
ideology, and, on the other, the possibility of furnishing event-centered
reporting with context, public perspective and a sense of meaning (see, e.g.
On Explanatory Journalism D 3
1990; Bennett, 1988; Carey, 1989; Darnton, 1975; Epstein, 1975; Fishman, 1988;
Gans, 1980; Hackett, 1984; Herman & Chomsky, 1988; MacDougall, 1988a, 1988b;
Parenti, 1993; Reese, 1990; Schudson, 1983; Sigal, 1973, 1987; Tuchman, 1978).
Walter Lippman (1922) classically described the limited possibilities of
journalism when he said that it "signalizes" events, i.e. announces an overt,
public action, rather than analyzing or interpreting. The rhetoric and imagery
of journalism entail fragmentation of issues into daily developments, an
emphasis on personality, drama and conflict, all of which simplify the
journalistic narrative. It is in this sense that journalism can be called "a
kaleidoscope equipped with consciousness" (cf. Benjamin, 1968, p. 177), rather
than a integrative medium raising larger questions. And the fact that journalism
is a business more than a public service increases the tendency to present
events as fragmented, dramatic and conflictfulDqualities that presumably excite
Thus journalism, considered as a specific genre of writing and thought,
seems to entail precisely the elimination of context and interpretation. By
focusing on fragmented, publicly verifiable events--who, what, when, where (and,
much more rarely and limitedly, why, how)--it attains its apparent "factual"
status and calls out urgently to its audience. Thus, in the end, it might be
said that journalism does not explain; it announces. And its sudden bulletins on
the odd, discontinuous, deviant and novel aim to produce, not understanding, but
This does not mean that journalism completely eschews explanation. An
additional strain in the media criticism cited above would swiftly point out
that the purportedly simple act of fragmented, objective "reporting" of events
On Explanatory Journalism D 4
serves very well to convey whole orders of assumption and presupposition,
privileging certain perspectives and sources (e.g. Bagdikian, 1990; Bennett,
1988; Fishman, 1988; Gans, 1980; Herman & Chomsky, 1988; MacDougall, 1988a,
1988b; Parenti, 1993; Reese, 1990; Schudson, 1983; Tuchman, 1978). These
"explanations" are the more powerful for being implicit, and they lead students
of mass media to note the ways journalism affirms and dynamically maintains
dominant structures of ideology and power. Pointing out the existence and nature
of these assumptions has been the major work of critical, cultural, ideological,
and rhetorical work in communications.
This might well be all there is to say about explanation in journalism.
There is no reason to take overly seriously journalism's advertising claims for
the fullness of its own narratives. And the critical literature explaining its
limitations is rich and exacting. But the question of explanation in journalism
does not disappear so easily.
For one thing, media critics themselves persist in calling for context and
perspective in journalism. Again and again, case studies of journalism end by
indicting narrowness of perspective and omission of issues, complexities, and
context (see, e.g. Bjork, 1986; Martindale, 1985). Secondly, journalism,
especially "good" journalism by leading, "elite" newspapers, offers up a variety
of apparently explanatory formsDweek-in-review sections, news analyses, series
and "take-outs," to say nothing of editorial and op-ed writing and columns. Even
wire services lay claim to fullness of explanation, especially as newspapers
strive more intensely to gain and hold readers. For instance, a list of 13
measures the Associated Press planned to "help member newspapers attract
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new readers" included such features as "more analysis, on cycle whenever
possible"; "adding context to stories," including "historical context and how
what took place will affect other events"; "encouraging enterprise by state
bureaus" to produce "stories that go beyond just covering the legislature and
politics"; and "redefining beats to include new topics and new focus" (Katz,
1992, p. 24). In 1985, the Pulitzer Prize Committee instituted a prize for
explanatory journalism. These measures imply the strong presence of something
more than event-centered reporting. But it remains to clarify how well these
types of journalism fulfill their promise.
Then too, a growing popular consciousness notes the limits of journalistic
narrative as compared to the needs of an enlightened public. The nature of
journalistic coverage, particularly the predominance of the "horse-race"
scenario and "sound-bite" dramas over "issues coverage" has itself become a news
story. This has been a noteworthy development, especially considering
journalism's busy attempts to render invisible the processes by which it selects
and presents information (a major aspect of its "objectivity"). Public and
popular discussion of media have moved beyond the traditional concern about
"bias" and "slant," which implies that neutral, objective coverage is possible.
Popular debate has begun to focus on the underlying scenarios, the narrative
style, of press coverage, particularly the coverage of political campaigns.
A "Calvin and Hobbes" cartoon of 1 March 1994, showed how deeply a rather
sophisticated understanding of the rhetoric of news had percolated into public
awareness. The pair looks over newspapers and Calvin says, "I like following the
news! News organization know I won't sit still
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for any serious discussion of complex and boring issues. They give me what I
want: antics, emotional confrontation, sound bites, scandal, sob stories and
popularity polls all packaged as a soap opera and horse race! It's very
entertaining." Hobbes muses, "Then commentators wonder why the public is cynical
about politics." But Calvin is staring at the paper: "You can tell this is an
in-depth story, because it's got an article next to the chart." The general
public apparently is in tune with cultural-critical and rhetorical studies of
The 1947 report of The Commission on Freedom of the Press, which introduced
the idea of explanatory journalism most clearly and emphatically into American
journalism history, framed the need for explanatory journalism within "the
present world crisis" in which humankind possessed the means of self-destruction
(p. vi). "Men must live, if they are to live at all, by self-restraint,
moderation, and mutual understanding," the report said (p. 4), calling upon the
journalistic narrative to incorporate these qualities more clearly and fully.
The need for such moderation and understanding has only increased as the world
crisis has deepened with profound shifts in communications, capital flows and
labor markets, ecological crisis, immigration patterns and national boundaries
and identities that have developed since 1947.
Writing in 1979, Gans, in one of the thorough considerations of explanatory
journalism, ended by saying that the call for explanatory journalism "would be a
good deal more effective if it coincided with widespread public demand for
greater popular representation in the economy and the polity" and that
"journalists have little incentive for significant change" (p. 334). The
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awareness of the limitations of journalistic practice and the problems facing
American newspapers both suggest that the conditions Gans noted now open a
greater possibility that journalistic practice can change and improve.
Meanwhile scholarly description of a possible "rich concept of truthful
narrative" in journalism grows more detailed and articulate (Christians, Ferr &
Fackler, 1993, p. 119). All these factors suggest a space in
whichDnotwithstanding real and obdurate ideological constraintsDthe order of
understanding journalism provides, the qualities of public mind it calls forth,
and the fullness of its airing of public issues, in all, journalism's
"enlightenment function," can be fulfilled more truly.
PURPOSE AND METHOD
Against this background, the present paper seeks to clarify the dynamics of
journalistic explanationDhow it is understood by journalists and journalism
critics. The idea of explanation in journalists' professional discourse and in
the academic narratives of American journalism history takes curious twists and
turns. Although explanatory journalism is frequently called upon and wished for
there has been little analysis of the technical means by which it is or is not
achieved. And there is great unacknowledged resistance to the idea of
explanation in journalism, as well as a great deal of philosophical inclarity as
to how and where it might be put into play. This essay attempts to generate a
taxonomy of the terms and concepts that characterize journalistic discussion of
the various forms of explanation, analysis and interpretation along with the
traditional emphasis on fact and opinion. The desire is to build on the rich
critical literature noted above and move beyond plaintive calls for
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context that often cap critical and qualitative case studies of news coverage.
The methodology will be broadly qualitativeDrhetorical, discursive and
literaryDapplied, not only to news stories, but to the concepts and terminology
within which journalists address the possibility of something beyond "objective
reporting." A concluding case study attempts to show how journalists express a
curious evasion of and resistance to explanation and the concept of the reader
that would enable it even in the face of statements from sources that they
themselves quote. The hope is that this analysis of the frequent failures of
explanation can prepare the ground for journalists and media scholars to
establish it more solidly.
The definition of explanatory journalism is frequently summed up in the call
of the Commission on Freedom of the Press for "a truthful, comprehensive and
intelligent account of the day's events in a context which gives them meaning"
(1947, p. 20), a matter of reporting not just "the fact truthfully," but "the
truth about the fact" (p. 22). Among the report's five requirements that a free
society makes upon a free press, two others also involve an opening of
journalistic rhetoric to accents of explanation. The third calls for "a means of
projecting the opinions and attitudes of the groups in society to one another,"
a function is to be carried out in news reporting (a separate requirement deals
with open opinion pages). The fourth calls for "a method of presenting and
clarifying the goals and values of the society" (p. 20)Dreporting on trends and
undercurrents rather than fragmented events.
Although the Commission report is not itself fully
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explicit about the technique and forms of coverage by which these aims would be
achieved, it clearly implies a move to qualities not frequently found in
journalism. Gans (1979) offers an excellent and thorough discussion of
explanatory or, to use his term, "multiperspectival news." From these two
sources, we can define explanatory journalism somewhat more specifically.
Explanatory journalism begins in the notion of providing context for
event-centered reporting. It seeks actively to define and provide contexts
(historical, sociological, economic, psychological, etc.) as appropriate to the
news events covered. Providing context may require that a story or stories spell
out precisely the difficulties, quandaries, shades of gray surrounding an event
(e.g., the diplomatic difficulties blocking intervention in the political and
human crisis in former Yugoslavia). This marks a significant distinction from
the sharply bifurcated, conflicting sides of the typical news narrative
(classically the two major political parties). The pursuit of context also
brings a consideration of the substance of issues--e.g. the provisions of health
care reform plans--rather than the political strategies and maneuvers
surrounding the legislative process, a characteristic preoccupation of
contemporary journalism. Explanatory journalism further adopts the viewpoints
and perspectives of diverse groups ("the opinions and attitudes of the groups in
society"), clarifying their sense of experience, and reporting on broad cultural
and social tendencies ("the goals and values of the society"). Thus, recognizing
that all presentations of facts involve specific perspectives and assumptions,
it would attempt self- consciously to adopt different perspectives, whether
political, national, ethnic or sociological (how the world
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looks to Black Muslims; how health care is handled in Japan). In this light, it
might also more clearly identify source perspective or ideology (e.g. by
identifying the political allegiance of think tank sources who are usually
designated simply "experts"). Reporting perspectives and substance also implies,
for instance, covering a wider range of political candidates (consider the case
of the meager coverage given to Democrat Larry Agran in the 1992 campaign and to
third parties in general). Currently journalism justifies its more selective
treatment of political positions by focusing on those "that have a chance of
winning," a loose extension of journalism's practice of basing news in official,
public developments in seats of power rather than broader social developments.
Implicit in these practices is a fundamental shift in the consciousness
implicit in journalistic representation from Baudelaire's "kaleidoscopic
consciousness" to a concerned, compassionate vision that seeks larger tendencies
in reported events, the questions that might occur to a concerned and
intelligent citizen. The kaleidoscopic vision can (and daily does), for
instance, report business after business laying off workers or closing, and
leaves the matter at that. The latter approach turns from those reports to ask:
What is happening to the economic fortunes of the U.S.? Where will this lead and
leave us? What does it mean to workers, youth, minorities, as well as business
FACT, OPINION, AND EXPLANATION
This at least is the noble ideal or possibility. As noted earlier, it is
invoked by media critics and journalists alike. But any systematic examination
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actualities of story style reveals that explanatory journalism is relatively
rare. Explanatory journalism has the greatest difficulty finding a place in
journalism because it founders on the fundamental, continued reliance of
journalism on an epistemology based on the split between subject and object.
Frequently, explanation disappears into the void between fact and opinion.
The philosophical problem of explanation, which receives rich and complex
discussion in both the humanities and physical and natural science (Peckham,
1979; Gaukroger, 1978; Downie, 1970; Connors, 1984, 1985; von Wright, 1971) is
radically simplified in journalistic epistemology by the fundamental place given
to the notion of fact. Once fact, however naievely conceived, is given primacy,
as it is in journalism, all that remains is an inchoate realm of personality,
subjectivity, feeling, opinion. And no matter how much newspapers in recent
years appear to permit "more tolerance and encouragement for a variety of ways
of knowing and writing" (Schudson, 1978, p. 193), the imagery of objectivity
remains woven deeply into journalistic discourse. Its fundamental presence
inflects (and infects) the possibility of the more thoughtful, public-spirited,
explanatory journalism sketched above. In journalists' own terminology, stories
only provide "angles" or "slants" on some presumably palpable, external
structure. Journalists "cover" or "report" events and "gather" news that
apparently exists fully formed in an external realm. With the facts in hand,
there is nothing left to do but express opinions about them. So we have, on one
side, the news pages where, media watchers intone, the news should be delivered
"straight," "unbiased," "without slant." And the subjective realm finds
expression within the extensive apparatus of editorials, op-
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ed pieces, columns, and letters to the editor gives expression to these various,
openly colored views.
Similarly, writing is praised in ways that diminish awareness of its
constructive power. Good journalistic writing "sparkles" or "sings"; the good
writer has "a nice touch." The cognitive effect journalists seek is, generally
and at base, astonishment, not understanding. Edna Buchanan told Calvin Trillin
she wants her stories to make a reader spit out his coffee and say, "My God,
Martha, did you see this?" Of course, she is speaking of murder stories out of
Miami. But the terms of praise applied to stories about less sensational events
evoke in their own way a mental condition different from understanding. The good
story is "compelling," "riveting" or "gripping." It would seem odd, almost
effete, for journalists to praise coverage as "illuminating,"
"thought-provoking" or "enlightening" and to call coverage "educational" would
hint at some sort of journalistic failure. "Fascinating" would be as far as that
line of praise goes in journalists' talk. And using the term "interpretation"
among journalist would swiftly raise fears of subjectivity and bias. "Public
education" also is not a news value (cf. any journalism text).
INVESTIGATION, ANALYSIS AND EXPLANATION
The variant on fact-centered reporting that journalism most honors is
investigative reporting. But investigative journalism is still well situated
within an objective epistemology. The investigative story, Gans (1979) says,
judges its malefactors by "their own expressed values," which "can be determined
empirically." Consequently, even value judgments can be considered objective
(Gans, 1979, p. 183; cited by Ettema and Glasser, 1987, p. 357-58). The
On Explanatory Journalism D 13
scope of investigative journalism also narrows down from larger questions of
social explanation. Ettema and Glasser (1988) note that the investigative story
may seek out "system-wide" abuses, but as it strives for narrative coherence and
to evoke outrage in readers, it scrutinizes these abuses against a background of
clear guilt and innocence. As a result, "Even in these stories of 'system- wide
problems,' the individual experience is emphasized while the social issue is
marginalized. . . . [A]ssessment of what exactly has gone wrong with the system
are not developed in much detail" (p. 24). Moreover, "analyses of basic moral
issues--what ought to be the responsibilities of the individual and institution,
how ought we to hold them accountable--are sidestepped" (p. 25).
What is most often permitted amid the straight reporting is "news analysis,"
which is supposedly scrupulously labelled as such to prevent infection from any
deviation from "hard news. However, closer scrutiny reveals the rhetorical
artifice that underlies this gesture. The deployment of the label, "analysis" is
not notably rigorous. Consider the following lead paragraphs. Which suggest
stories that should be labelled as analysis?
(1) JERUSALEM D The line between scattered shelling and outright war
can disintegrate quickly in the Middle East. With its largest attacks on
targets in Lebanon in a decade, Israel walks perilously close to that line.
But by directing both verbal and steel barrages on an Islamic
militia and not any neighboring governments, it hopes to stop the deadly
rocket attacks on its northern towns without jeopardizing upcoming peace
talks shepherded by U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher
On Explanatory Journalism D 14
(2) ROSTOCK, Germany D As night falls in Rostock's suburb of
Lichtenhagen, its young people go out, leaving behind their parents' drab
At bus stops and street corners, they meet friends. Ranging in
ages from 11 to 25, they get ready for a night of violence.
For five nights, a hostel for asylum seekers has been their
destination. The youths meet here to shout racist slogans and hurl stones
and Molotov cocktails (Kaminsky, 1992).
(3) HOUSTON D If you paid attention to each party's national
convention, you might conclude your choice for president is between a
whimpering, draft-dodging Democratic weasel named Bill Clinton and a
spineless Republican pawn of the rich named George Bush.
Each party has become so skillful at tarring and feathering the
other side, so adept at blaming the other for the ills that beset the
nation, that voters could be excused if they decide to believe them both
(4) MOSCOW D Back in the old Soviet days, an American- Soviet summit
meeting was a time for the Kremlin's propaganda machine to go into
overdrive with a torrent of shows, books and articles about the United
States. . . .
The summit meeting itself would be grand, every event televised,
every handshake a testament to a desperately desired recognition by that
dreamland across the seas.
But that was way back then. This time, newspapers have carried
only staid reports . . . (Schmemann, 1994).
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None of these paragraphs offer an attributed report on a specific public event
from the previous dayDthe classic sign of a "hard news report." Each emerges in
response to current breaking newsDsevere Israeli shelling of Islamic militia as
peace talks come on; five nights of attacks on asylum seekers in Germany;
persistent use of negative ads in a U.S. presidential campaign; a summit meeting
between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. Each makes scant use of attributed
sources, and then usually low in the story. And each seeks to make some larger
point about the news: the Israelis are walking a tightrope between war and
limited reprisal; drab life and failed social programs in East Germany lead to
neo- Nazi resurgence; negative campaigning repels voters and abuses "the
national psyche"; and Russians' faith in the transformative power of American
prosperity has dimmed. In this sense, each would seem to constitute "news
analysis," yet the only the first two were labelled as such. The point is not to
gasp in shock at a lapse in standards, but to observe (a) that labelling a story
as analysis is apparently a rather flexible process and (b) journalism to judge
from these examples finds space for stories, which use analysis and attribution,
commentary and color rather freely and flexibly and does so without
self-questioning or comment from industry standard-setters. The "analysis" label
is used often when an analytical story appears on the front page or is packaged
with breaking news on an inside page. The chaste placement of news and analysis
side by side, but carefully separated, serves its own rhetorical function with
respect to the credibility of the news columns. Labelled analysis retroflexively
marks off the news report as objective and factual.
News analysis might seem to provide an outlet for
On Explanatory Journalism D 16
explanation, but it does not reliably bring a new level of discussion,
perspective, or explanation. News analyses frequently are absorbed into the
journalistic narrative fascination with strategy and likely outcomesDa more
sophisticated evolution of the "horse-race story." With its overtones of
"analysis" as performed by CIA and stock experts, the analytical story has
connotations of shrewd intellectual activity, "inside dope," rather than public
explanation. Thus each of the four examples cited can be said to make a "larger
point" about the news situation, but the explanatory power is uneven. The story
on neo-Nazis does seek to "explain" racism, citing the closing of "state-run
leisure activities and mass organizations" and a disorientation succeeding upon
the break-down of a repressive system. But this suggests that the youths were
not racist or neo-Nazi under CommunismDa question whose answer would require
adopting the perspective of these young people. This the story does not do.
More strongly explanatory is the story on negative campaigning, which also
makes the point that both parties play cooperative roles in the nation's
successes and failures. This last feature is noteworthy in sketching in shades
of gray and explicitly reducing the sharp conflict fostered by negative
campaigning and often relished in journalistic accounts.
The story on Israel essentially frets over the possible outcome of a
difficult moment in the mid-east. The story's sixth paragraphs notes that none
of the government surrounding Israel "appear interested in war." But this
observation is not allowed to change the lead angle, which seems to actively
cultivate a degree of apprehension and drama not sustained by the reporting.
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Of even less explanatory power is the Times story explaining how Russians
optimistic love for American prosperity has dimmed. It sketches a kind of
life-style background to the summit, and clearly misses an opportunity to
examine what Russians from varying social positions believe is at stake.
The analytical story and unlabeled analyses discussed here mark places in
the flow of news stories, where some explanatory journalism occurs but without
any clear and self-conscious sense of the part of journalists for what
explanation might do. These points could be more systematically exploited to
improve public comprehension. Pegged to news events in this fashion, explanatory
journalism can also clearly avoid the danger, noted by Gans (1979) and
understandably rejected by journalists, of turning the newspaper into a
political science textbook.
IS INTERPRETATION EXPLANATION?
The continuing distinction between news analysis and "straight" news also
shows that newspapers have not moved as fully and frankly into interpretive
journalism as the usual generalizations suggest. InclarityDand even
invisibilityDalso surround the idea of explanatory journalism in American
journalism history, where it typically merges in confusing ways with
interpretation. For instance, in Emery and Emery's The Press and America (1992),
there is no entry for explanatory journalism, even though one might have
expected discussion of the Pulitzer Prize committee's institution of a prize in
that category (as well as investigative journalism) in 1985. Interpretive
journalism, however, has a well-established place, but the discussion of the
phenomenon leaves somewhat unclear precisely what the term covers. Emery and
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describe interpretive reporting as including the emphasis on broad perspective
usually associated with explanatory journalism. Emerging in the 1930s and '40s,
they say, it entailed a turn against "old-style objectivity," which encompassed
"sticking to a factual account of what had been said or done." The "new concept"
"was based on the belief that the reader needed to have a given event placed in
its proper context if truth was really to be served" (p. 311). But the specifics
of the discussion bring no information on contextual reporting of public
affairs. Instead, the discussion suddenly shifts to "reporter-specialists,"
covering areas of particular concern in the American '30s and '40sD"politics,
economics and business, foreign affairs, science, labor, agriculture and social
work" (p. 311). The section is called, "the rise of interpretive reporting," as
if the phenomenon was general, and no decline of interpretive reporting is ever
noted. The reader can carry away the impression that a general trend to
explanatory journalism was instituted and maintained as part of American
journalism's general march toward increased fairness and completeness.
But the notion that interpretive journalism carved out and maintained a
broad place in American journalism from the '30s onward is questionable. In a
study of daily newspapers from 1865 to 1954, Stensaas (1986) found that the
percentage of stories using the inverted-pyramid structure and attributing
information to authoritative sourcesDtwo essential features of non-interpretive,
"factual" reportingDrose from a third in 1865-1874 to two-thirds in 1905-14 and
to 80 percent by 1925-35. The Emerys report that newsmagazine interpretive
journalismDof which more in a momentDwould be challenged on the grounds that it
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mixed "opinion and editorial opinion . . . with the straight news" (p. 334)Da
development that requires a still well- embedded allegiance to objectivity. In a
memoir of the '50s and '60s at The New York Times, Edwin Diamond (1994)
complains of the replacement of straight-news reporting by interpretive angles
as a recent development at the paper which would be the likeliest of all U.S.
papers to be a bastion of explanatory reporting. Diamond notes plaintively how
few stories on current Times front pages carry leads with the simple word,
"yesterday" (i.e. how few are hard- news reports of what someone said or did the
day before), a departure of his sense of the paper's practice in the '50s and
The weakness or inclarity of the nature of interpretive and explanatory
journalism also appears in textbooks on the subject. Interpretive Journalism,
"the first modern textbook to analyze systematically and to popularize the
interpretative aspects of reporting," grew from the recognition
that journalists are human and cannot help but have their perceptions
and values shape their reporting and writing. Thus, [Curtis D. MacDougall,
the original author] emphasized that the news needs context, clarity,
nuance and explanation and that reporters need to be fair-minded and
thorough in their research and writing (MacDougall & Reid, 1987, p. v).
The authors proceed to illustrate this approach with an example of
"interpretation in action" (pp. 3), a package of three stories about rape from
the Corpus Christi (Tex.) Caller Times. For the authors the package shows how
even smaller papers "can do reporting that goes beyond the routine if only they
will ask intelligent, humane questions,
On Explanatory Journalism D 20
seek to explore below the surface of events and apply their liberal arts and
sciences studies to their journalism." But the stories cited scarcely do move
far beyond the standard scope of objective reporting on public events and
statistics, punched up with melodrama.
The main story is an emotional account of a single rape victim: "Ellen
finds herself living a series of little rapes now"; "life's daily frustrations"
are "disturbingly different." The first of two sidebars summarizes developments
in which rape survivors are treated "as victims rather than people bearing
stigmas." A rape crisis center and police rape investigation team have been
instituted and new laws aim to increase rape reporting (p. 6). The second
sidebar provides national and local statistics on rape. These stories, the
text's authors say, "exemplify the interpretative reporting concept, . . . a
reporter in touch with both the human beings and the larger forces at work in
her community," "the story behind the story" (p. 7). But it may be questioned
whether an emotional, human-interest angle and summaries of recent public
affairs developments and sex- crime statistics really go as deep as that.
Similarly, and curiously, the textbook's discussion of the "five W's and H"
gives no special attention to "why" and "how," which would presumably carry some
additional weight in interpretive reporting.
This textbook does also include genuine examples of explanatory journalism.
One story explains that "in reality the business tax revolt of 1978 was created
largely by business tax relief at the expense of homeowners" (p. 189). Another
accounts for a rash of fights between high-school basketball fans by invoking
academic regimentation, largeness of scale, and pep rallies as studies in mass
On Explanatory Journalism D 21
psychology (pp. 195-97). The mixture of genuine and dubious explanation in this
fine and useful textbook only illustrates again the inclarity that obscures the
dimensions of the explanatory journalism.
Newsweekly journalismDwhich has been the acknowledged form of interpretive
journalism since the '30sDalso presents a curious special case. In some ways the
editorial vision that established Time and other news magazines seems to
suggest a fully explanatory journalism or, certainly, more in the way of
explanation than occurs in daily papers. Schudson (1978) notes that Time
introduced a "new view of facts" (p. 149), one holding that fact and opinion
cannot be separated. Though this deserves the name interpretive journalism, the
newsweekly approach is still significantly distinct from explanatory journalism.
Times "coverage of national affairs, foreign news, science, religion,
business, education, and other areas was to be written not for people who had
expert knowledge of each of the fields, but in order to "inform" the "busy man"
(Emery & Emery, 1992, p. 334). As described in standard histories, newsweekly
journalism is characterized, not centrally by establishing context and
background (though, again, more of this occurs than in daily reporting), but in
departing from the reporting of facts to establish strong narrative interest,
colored by human interest (Emery and Emery, 1992). Henry R. Luce and Briton
Hadden's notion of Time as written "as if by one man for one man" (Emery and
Emery, 1992, p. 334) hints at the personalism and clubbiness that characterize
newsweekly style. Schudson describes the stance vividly: "Time's saucy prose
inscribed in every sentence a jaunty attitude toward facts" (p. 149). This is
not a rhetorical situation of expounding and explaining a
On Explanatory Journalism D 22
complex world, but of injecting the news into a readily understood narrative,
somewhat, for instance, as gossip and news are shared within an established
social group, or as if the journalist were a tipster and the news reader a wise
guy in the know.
WHAT (AND TO WHOM) DOES "EXPLANATORY JOURNALISM" EXPLAIN?
The Pulitzer Prize board began awarding a prize for explanatory journalism
in 1985. The new prize emerged, said Robert C. Christopher, secretary of the
board, in response to a recognition that "in the increasingly complex age in
which we live, the task of illuminating and explaining intricate and seemingly
abstruse issues and concerns has become one of the major responsibilities of
journalism" (Pulitzer Board, 1984). Some observers hoped (though dimly) that the
prize would encourage reporting more sensitive to broad cultural trends: "While
the introduction of a Pulitzer Prize for 'explanatory journalism' may change
things," Romano (1986) says, "it has been true that investigative stories about
government corruption, no matter how routine the scenario, win prizes, and
explanatory stories about culture don't, no matter how fresh or difficult the
reporting' (p. 53). The years since have supported Romano's pessimism. The
Pulitzer Board was speaking literally when it conceived explanation as a
response to "intricate and . . . abstruse issues and concerns." The prize has
not rewarded coverage that illuminates public or international affairs, but
typically has gone to journalism dealing with science and high finance. The
prize went for coverage of molecular psychiatry in 1985, the "Star Wars" missile
system in 1986, gene therapy in 1987, insider trading in 1988, a plane crash
On Explanatory Journalism D 23
in 1989, the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1990 and leveraged buyout in
1991 (Bates, 1991). Only special, obviously complex events merit "explanation,"
and explanation continues to be bracketed off from the general flow of public
Moreover, the statements of one judge of this prize, who was also a winner
of the prize, suggests that even in specialized explanation emotionalismDeven
"magic"Dremains the keynote rather than understanding. Jon Franklin said judges:
read the lead plus four to five more paragraphs of each entry, asking,
'Do I understandDam I moved?' If a piece fails to move any three judges, it
is tossed under the table.
the finalists, Franklin continued, "could grab you by the throat. They weren't
informing you; they were involving you. There is a mastery to thatDa magic"
(Harris, 1992, p. 8). If Franklin's remarks are characteristic, any journalist
writing in a tone of patient explication is not likely to win the Pulitzer Prize
for Explanatory Journalism.
Journalistic slang confirms the sense, evident in the fate of the Pulitzer
Prize, that explanation is almost inherently unjournalistic. "Think piece" is
virtually a term of scorn. Even more colloquially, the explanatory piece is a
"thumbsucker" (Carey, 1986, p. 168), a metaphor that suggests a feckless feeding
on one's own resources and avoidance of nutrition (news) from the outside world.
The image casts transparent, objective news gathering as mature or "manly."
Explanation stands not only under the stigma of bias but of contemptible
self-involvement as well.
And explanation in current journalistic discourse is "kid stuff" in another
way. One of its few allowed and
On Explanatory Journalism D 24
explicit appearances in journalism is in news pages specially prepared for young
readers in the light of concerns about lost market share. Thus, for instance,
Long Island Newsday as part of a "Student Briefing Page on the News" runs
stories it labels as "Newsday Explainer(s)." In the wake of the Zapatista
National Liberation Front revolt on News Year's Day, 1994, the page on Jan. 13
offered a full-column story on problems with land reform, environmental
restriction on traditional agricultural methods, and a round-up of recent
developments. One sidebar referred students to John Reed's "Insurgent Mexico"
and selected a brief anecdote about Pancho Villa. A second sidebar profiled
Emiliano Zapata, while a map illuminated Mexican geography. It seems ironic and
possibly self- defeating that editors turn to explanation in this case without
reflecting that its power to engage and empowers young readers might also appeal
EVADING EXPLANATION: A CASE STUDY
Journalists in fact evince a most unfortunate cynicism and obduracy in the
face of evidence that significant parts of the public are hungry for explanatory
journalism. We find signs of a hunger for understanding in the success of the
Philadelphia Inquirer's series on tax policy, reprinted as America: What Went
Wrong? (Barlett & Steele, 1992) and in the readiness of large numbers of TV
viewers to sit through Ross Perot's chalk talks, which, whatever their ultimate
inadequacy, took the form of extended explanation of complex affairs. (Against
this background it seems possible that public demands for "good news" call, not
for mindless, grinning optimism, but news reporting that fosters understanding
rather than astonishment.)
On Explanatory Journalism D 25
Popular sobriety and good sense are also sometimes reflected in news
reports, particularly reaction stories. What is disturbing, however, is the way
journalists suppress, subordinate and slight these qualities in the very stories
that contain them. Consider a story about the complex Whitewater affair,
headlined, "So What Is This Whitewater? The People Speak (or Yawn)" (Berke,
1994, p. A1). To judge by its headline, the story is nominally explanatory, if
not of the case itself, of what people think of it. Not much, to judge by the
headline and the lead paragraphs:
LAKEWOOD, Ohio, March 11 D 'Whitewater?' asked Zandra Wolfgram.
'Whitewater what? Rafting?'
Official Washington may be consumed by the Whitewater affair, but
beyond the capital's BeltwayDfrom Seattle to Chicago to Atlanta to Boston
to LakewoodDmost people have other things on their minds, like the
weather or the fortunes of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan.
Judging by more than 200 on-the-street interviews with Democrats,
Republicans and independents around the country this week, Whitewater is
not a big topic of conversation.
This opening invokes familiar images of the public: in fact the very images that
justify handling news for astonishment and melodrama. People don't care about
politics; they want to be entertained. They are more interested in ice skating
The next six paragraphs summarize poll and interview reactions, and
material begins to surface that is at odds with the story's opening angle. We
read that opinions of Clinton remain largely unchanged and even Republicans say
On Explanatory Journalism D 26
their party is "exploit[ing] the dispute for political advantage." It develops
that Zandra Wolfgram knows perfectly well what Whitewater means these days. And
the jump of the story brings more detailed quotes, which are strikingly
philosophical and complex when measured against typical images of the public.
The people interviewed say they have come to expect "scandal" in the backgrounds
of political figures, yet do not appear cynical about the fact. Lee Moon, 64, a
computer salesman and Perot voter, says, "If you want to dig and go back, you
can find noise about anyone. Whitewater-gate, Tonya-gate, I'm sick of nothing
stories." (This, incidentally, is the only mention of ice skating in the story;
the lead's contention that citizens prefer ice skating to politics is simply not
supported.) "No one," Berke says, "described Whitewater as even approaching the
dimensions of the Watergate scandals." Melissa Meier, 39, a college art
instructor and independent voter, says: "Iran- contra was a hundred times more
important than this baloney Whitewater stuff. Now that was a big cover-up." The
public as quoted in this story shows a long memory, a good sense of political
perspective, and hints that media coverage is as much a problem as the
politicians' actions. But none of these qualities is reflected in the lead or
story angle. And as the story continues, the reporter's framing of source
statements repeatedly tries to reinvoke standard scandal scenarios of blighted
reputation and public irritation. Berke writes, "Asked about the Whitewater
affair, many people were hard pressed to . . . explain just how the White House
had managed to create a controversy over its handling of a relatively small
business venture that occurred several years ago." If people are "hard pressed,"
it may be because it is not White House "handling" is not animating the
On Explanatory Journalism D 27
affair. Berke's framing slyly subordinates the very factors that make the
scandal dubious as scandal. Clearly, the press must play some role in forwarding
this "nothing story."
Berke continues, "some people say the matter has already tarnished their
view of [Clinton]." The following quote reveals no tarnished view: "'Clearly it
has been handled badly', said Matthew Bierman, . . . . 'I guess the Democrats
don't have as much experience in scandal management." Berke introduces
psychoanalyst Vivian Trotz as "frustrated with the Administration's handling of
the affair." Her statement actual statement sounds more reflective than
impatient: ". . . this business of not coming forth has as much to do with
disorganization in the White House."
Journalistic handling of the Whitewater affair is doubly interesting since
there is a genuine question of how serious is this scandal, which unlike
Watergate and Iran- Contra, does not concern the president's conduct in office.
Journalistic coverage of the matter suffers from the classic bind of objective
reporting so frequently analyzed since the case of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's
charges of Communist subversion: key officials take the matter seriously and
make serious charges. Journalists must report their concerns and thus the story
grows. But how serious an affair is it? The supposed rise of interpretive
journalism seems not to have given journalists a way to put such charges in
perspective. Public reaction to the affair is inevitably bound up with a
reaction to the coverage that places it before them, and this in turn provides a
difficult problem of describing public reactions to journalism in journalism.
Berke's Whitewater story underplays the public's appetite for explanation and
misrepresents the explanation of public
On Explanatory Journalism D 28
attitudes revealed in his own reporting.
This evasion of explanation continued the next day in "The Week in Review"
section's lead story on Whitewater. It would have seemed a reasonable moment to
examine the nature of the charges at issue. And some features of the
presentation suggested that this is what the editors intended. The text of the
story was ringed by pictures of figures caught up in past scandals of
"Checkers," "Vicuna Coat," "Billygate," "B.C.C.I," "Tidal Basin," and so on.
Given the extensive reporting published the previous day, the story might seem
primed to entertain the question, what makes a scandal (and is Whitewater one of
That the approach would not be so rationalistic was swiftly made clear by
the story's headline: "Whatevergate: The Mysterious Chemistry That Turns Whiff
to Stench" (Rosenbaum, 1994). From the point of view of public development, the
official line was "it is too soon to tell," how severe Whitewater is. (Of
course, this notion need not prevent setting the gravity of the charges in
perspective.) But the Times instead and with considerable ingenuity managed to
keep the issue alive without any essential clarification of this question or
even really addressing it by declaring political process and the public mind
essentially mysterious. The scandal, Rosenbaum wrote, had "seemed to begin
crystallizing last week," although the 200 interviews reported the previous day
might have suggested otherwise.
This "crystallization" was not owing to any revelations or proofs, but to
the presence on front pages of key words and on television screens of key
images, all fulfilling the scandal scenario. The words were such as, "shredding,
special prosecutor, subpoenas, grand jury, cover-up,
On Explanatory Journalism D 29
immunity, Congressional hearings," and the images included the president
"parrying razor-edged questions from reporters . . . ; officials leaving the
Federal Courthouse with their lawyers and climbing into government sedans . . .
" (p. 1). This attribution of the "crystallization" of the scandal to "words"
and "images" suggests that supposedly fact-minded journalists will turn into
post-modernists before they consent to good old, flat-footed explanation!
These words and images are early signs of a chemical reaction that
sometimes bursts into fireworks, but on other occasions, "the chemical reaction
never occurs; the matter simply turns back into vapor" (p. 1).
The answer to the question "Which scandals will captivate the public,
and why?" is mysterious and seemingly unpredictable. Relatively minor
transgressions, like those associated with overdrawn accounts at the House
bank, may infuriate the people, while wrongdoing that challenges the core
of constitutional government (the Iran-contra affair) may anger only
columnists and civics teachers.
The public again is depicted as mercurial and unpredictable, lacking in
understanding. And there is a curious mingling of esthetic and substantive
standards: the public can be "captivated" or "infuriated" by scandal. The
esthetic framing seems to predominate, and the first source cited is, of all
things, a rhetorical critic!
'What causes a scandal to take root,'said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean
of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of
Pennsylvania, 'is what involves a reader in an Agatha Christie novel: the
anticipation that a full-blown plot is going to be revealed that is going
to explain something basic to
On Explanatory Journalism D 30
mankind, like human venality, thwarted love or the corrupt use of
power' (p. 1).
Whether Whitewater could fulfill these mythic demands, "it is too early to
tell," Rosenbaum says. The use of Jamieson's quote illustrates how journalists
deploy a species of dramatic criticism that offers analysis without explanation.
In truth, of course, Jamieson's remark actually re-opens the question of whether
there has in fact been "a corrupt use of power." And, again, much could have
been said in this story about the nature of the abuses of power and forms of
venality in past cases as compared to Whitewater. The previous week's extensive
interviewing had revealed on the part of the public grave doubts that the
Whitewater charges amounted to much, public suspicion that the story was being
used for both partisan and journalistic purposes, and sympathy for Clinton's
larger agenda. These appear only briefly (in the 19th of the story's 28
paragraphs), when Rosenbaum says, "the public very much wants Mr. Clinton to
succeed as President" (p. 6). The week in review story's overall angle finds the
Times Week in Review throwing up its hands rather than weighing the issue, and
declared the political worldDand the publicD"mysterious."
CONCLUSION: EXPLANATION THAT EXPLAINS
This essay began by saying a moment of opening for change in journalistic
rhetorical emerges from heightened public demand for explanatory journalism and
the newspaper's attempt to increase market share. The intervening analysis has
described a conceptual inclarity and resistance to the explanatory journalism in
the discourse of professional and media historians. It has also noted a severe
resistance to the process of explanation on the part of journalists. Carey
On Explanatory Journalism D 31
(1986) calls explanation the "dark continent" of journalism. However, in saying
that the entire "curriculum" of journalism provides sufficient explanation, if
the reader is patient and thorough enough to pursue it, he suggests that in the
end the terrain is clear enough. The need for explanatory journalism remains
severe enough that it seems important to make stronger demands on the quality of
explanatory journalism within daily news reporting, where most people get their
news. If this principle is accepted, then a better metaphor for the place of
explanatory journalism in the journalistic terrain might be will o' the wispDan
evanescent quality, mentioned in journalism histories but not very clearly
comprehended, celebrated in principle but evaded in practice. Journalism never
explicitly acknowledges that explanation may lie outside its range of rhetorical
possibilities, but continues to treat explanation as a kind of unacknowledged
Still, explanatory journalism does occur here and there, as examples cited
in the course of this paper show. Newspapers, in their scorn for and repudiation
of the contextual, are arguably missing an important opportunity to be
"reader-friendly." As noted above, news analysis, labelled and unlabeled,
appears regularly and can be used more systematically for explanation. The
Sunday paper is also a natural place for such reflective journalism. And if
newspapers developed special explanatory treatments, these could be packaged for
greater permanence, e.g. as a pull-out to be saved, and fairly promoted in
The quite real ideological pressures that limit journalism from taking a
truly public point of view and seeking a wide range of views on questions
concern us as citizens still leave room for explanatory journalism. It
On Explanatory Journalism D 32
would not have taken much to have written the Whitewater reaction story to fully
acknowledge, rather than subordinate, the public intelligence and skepticism
that were discovered. In the paper's story the next day, the courage to explore
the gravity of the Whitewater affair should hardly lie beyond the reach of the
news organization that prides itself on publishing the Pentagon Papers.
Notwithstanding the ideological pressures media critics rightly describe,
explanatory journalism could appear in tomorrow's paper, given the will and the
understanding. Conceptual clarity about the nature ofDand even the resistance
toDexplanatory journalism is a necessary foundation for pressures from the
public and media critics to bring that possibility to reality.
On Explanatory Journalism D 33
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