Almost Nothing Can Be Explained in One Chart

Explainer journalism would be enhanced by a little humility — and the admission that like the news, explanations can be complicated.

By Nathan Pippenger

Henry Farrell has some constructive thoughts on the inherent risks of “explainer journalism”—the sites which “have built their core identity around explaining complicated issues or situations to a well-informed general public.” Because they implicitly claim authority through the self-appointed position of “explainer,” these sites may risk a greater difficulty with intellectual humility:

First, the explainers are sometimes going to get things wrong. This is especially likely in international politics, where the explaining journalist is supposed to have expertise in far more countries and far more issues than any human being can possibly know much about. Second, the explainer is going to have difficulty in admitting that he or she has gotten something wrong. If your authority and livelihood as a writer rests on your supposed ability to explain, you are not going to want to admit that you got things seriously wrong, even if you did.

Farrell elaborated his thoughts on Twitter:

Farrell’s recommendation is straightforward: Show a little more humility. Instead of claiming to definitively answer complicated questions, explainer sites should “set out the evidence supporting the claims, talk about alternative explanations, and give the reader some sense of why the major claim (rather than a competing claim) seems the most plausible.”

This is hugely welcome advice—and, I’d add, a way for explainer sites like Vox (most of which are quite good in general) to shed some of their more off-putting habits while still retaining their distinctiveness. One such habit, which should be immediately dropped by every headline writer everywhere, is the reliance on the “In One Chart” cliché. A search for “one chart” in Google News returns results from Vox, The Week, The Houston Chronicle, The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, and Forbes, purporting to explain stories as diverse as the Hong Kong uprising, Medicaid expansion, CEO pay, economic inequality, the decline of the family farm, the Toronto mayoral race, and the likely failure of military aid to Ukraine in—well, I won’t say it. But it seems obvious that almost no story worth explaining can be fully and accurately conveyed in one chart. The writers of those stories (for the most part) understand that perfectly well, and many of them don’t write their own headlines. And to be fair to their editors: It’s an effective way to promote stories in a crowded marketplace governed by pitiless economic realities.

Still, the “in one chart” phenomenon is not just a neutral headline practice. It corrodes journalism. It makes journalism as a whole less interesting, by homogenizing the voices (and, increasingly, the approaches) of diverse publications. It condescends to readers. It distorts complex situations and (as Farrell notes) downplays the almost-inevitable ambiguity behind any major news story. Over the long run, it may even be pressuring writers to flatten their analyses, in order to better conform with a proven headline template. That problem is not as far-fetched as it might sound: Wouldn’t any journalist love to write the next viral “in one chart” piece?

Still, there’s good news: As Farrell argues, these problems can all be corrected without explainer sites sacrificing their claim to a distinctive place in the news-media ecosystem. That’s largely because they aren’t beholden to either the norms of opinion journalism or some of the hoary practices of more traditional news coverage. It’s fine for any publication to employ data and expert analysis, but opinion journalism usually comes with a built-in point of view, and traditional news sources generally feel compelled to at least pay lip service even to wacky theories—if only to insulate themselves from allegations of bias. (Hence the shameful use of euphemisms like “harsh interrogation techniques.”) Explainer sites, in contrast to both of these, neither begin with an obvious point of view nor feel beholden to the more questionable practices associated with American media objectivity.

That means, with a little humility, they are uniquely positioned to offer (reasonably) authoritative explanations of what’s going on in the news—widely accepted because they come from relatively unbiased sources, and because they forthrightly privilege expert views and facts over the self-interested spin issued by rival operatives. But notice the use of the plural “facts”: In almost any story worth telling, there will be more than one key element, and maybe even more than one chart that can help readers understand it. A little admission of that reality would be better for everyone.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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