Writing to Explain, to Understand: Reaction to Chapter 5 of ‘America’s Best Newspaper Writing’

Chapter 5: Explanatory Journalism and Business Writing

MARCH 10, 2011

Graphic by Marlena Chertock.

Explanatory journalism is when a reporter writes to explain a topic, issue or event that people don’t know much about or that people aren’t aware of. The topic can be complex, complicated or confusing. The articles show that the writer has researched and reported on the topic and now knows or understands it, and so can write about it and inform readers.

Business reporting is reporting on issues in the business world, stores and companies filing bankruptcy or doing well, new companies, companies merging, stock markets and many other issues and topics.

In this chapter, Clark and Scanlan explain and show how important it is to craft a theme for a story and then build on this theme. The theme is what a writer focuses on. The theme helps the writer and story remain focused, but also developed and detailed.

It is important to gather much more material, information and details than necessary. If a writer has more to work with, the story will be better. A writer can’t be sure which detail he’ll use once the story is actually written or what information is needed and what is extraneous.

While it is important to gather more material during the information-gathering phase, reporting and researching process of the article, it is also important to use the theme to cut out the irrelevant information before it goes into the article.

Articles, and especially explanatory journalism and business reporting stories, need to be carefully reported. This means finding experts who are knowledgeable about the topic, who can help explain it, finding numbers, data and statistics that can explain a part of the topic or help readers see more clearly. It also requires reporting from the field to gather details. Business and explanatory reporting does not mean boring, dull and dry — these stories should be richly detailed and contain revealing details. Just like when Peter Rinearson, one of the great writers included in this chapter, puts in what he calls “gold coins,” little nuggets, little details to keep the reader interested and the story alive. In a story about the creation of a new airplane, Rinearson included a detail about how the engineers tested the windows — by throwing anesthetized chickens into the windows to test against puncture. It is these details that help explain the story to readers, that keep readers interested.

One of the great writers in this chapter, William E. Blundell, believed that a viewpoint is essential to a story. Viewpoints are like main arguments, main points — the message of the article and the writer. Viewpoints can be built through repetition, alliteration or word play. Use repetition to make a point more than once, in different ways. The theme and point shouldn’t be repeated in the same way, as readers will grow bored or it will seem too pushy. The reader will understand better if a point is made repetitively in one of these ways, but it should not be overused.

Another great writer included in this chapter, Rinearson, had a goal for every article: he wanted to understand the material so his readers would understand. Aim for clarity and comprehension. For a writer to understand the material and information, he must research and talk to many experts. Then to help readers understand the information, he must translate technical language and use numbers and statistics to help illustrate information for readers. Numbers can also create confusion, so writers should be cautious and careful when using them. Choose the important numbers to include in the article. Don’t use too many, as this will be jarring and confusing for readers. There is a rule of thumb in journalism and business writing: don’t use more than two or three numbers or statistics in one paragraph. More than two will begin to overtake the words and be hard for readers to comprehend. The writer may also start to be confused by all the numbers, which would be detrimental to the article and clarity. In order to have comprehension as a goal, a writer should always think of the needs of the reader.

One way to ensure readers will understand articles and the story is to use simple, clear prose. If writing becomes too flowery or technical, it is more likely that students will not understand. Additionally, if the theme is too broad or if the writer did not cut out irrelevant information, the reader might be confused of what the article is really about.

Writers should also tirelessly and ruthlessly revise their articles. This will act as another way to cut out irrelevant information, like the theme helps to focus. Revision ensures that all of the material, information, numbers, statistics, quotes included are necessary to the story. Revision helps to keep the story clear, concise and focused.

Top 5 list of business reporting and explanatory journalism articles:

1. The Burger that Shattered Her Life, The New York Times

Michael Moss

Moss opens the article in what seems like the best place for a reader to understand. He writes about how one woman’s life, Stephanie Smith, was affected and ravaged by tainted beef, by E. coli. She has become paralyzed from eating a hamburger. He makes this point repeatedly, and it is very strong.

Moss definitely thought about how this story and issue impacts people, impacts Smith. He focuses on how the E. coli affected her at first, then years later and now, how she is paralyzed and consumed with anger at her condition and how she became paralyzed.

Moss includes several cases of E. coli in the article and how many people were affected or killed by the outbreaks, throughout several years. This data and these numbers are very helpful in reader’s understanding. Numbers and data help illustrate the severity and danger of food contamination. Moss uses these numbers to help explain the story and issue to readers.

2. Selling the farm or working the land?, The Gazette

Katherine Heerbrandt

Heerbrandt clearly did a lot of reporting and research for this article. It is clear in her writing that she understands the issue and the topic.

The condition is that participants must try for five years to sell a permanent easement on the property under the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Program, or another government land preservation program, to ensure the property is never developed.

When that is accomplished, the farmer repays the county with state money.

This is clear, direct writing, the kind of writing that is only accomplished if a reporter understands her material. Unnecessary information and wordiness can creep into articles if a reporter does not truly understand the topic. It seems like Heerbrandt is writing a sort of cause and effect relationship, when this happens then that will result, “when that is accomplished, the farmer repays.” This is a very clear style and structure of writing.

Heerbrandt explains both sides of this issue, of a farmer who wants to keep his family farm but is perhaps profiting off of it through taxpayers.

Blickenstaff wants to pave a portion of his 122-acre Burkittsville farm on the backs of county taxpayers

— according to former Frederick County Commissioner John L. Thompson’s complaint to the county Ethics Commission

She explains the reasons Blickenstaff has to develop and pave part of his farm. He wants to be a part of the Frederick County Critical Farms Option Program, which is a program that loans money to farmers so they can buy at least 50 acres of farmland at 75 percent of the land’s value, if it is developed, Heerbrandt explains.

Heebrandt includes many percentages, numbers and explanations of these numbers. But she also includes the human side. She helps readers understand the issue through these numbers, in various ways. She uses Blundell’s repetition.

3. Blockbuster Avoids Liquidation, The Wall Street Journal

Joseph Checkler and Mike Spector

Checkler and Spector help explain Blockbuster’s bankruptcy and subsequent liquidation in a simple, clear way. They explain the multiple sides, the angry movie studios that are owed money for DVDs they sold to Blockbuster.

Blockbuster’s lawyers and lawyers representing the movie studios worked out an arrangement that would steer payments to them from the proceeds of a sale in a way they found more palatable.

The reporters explain the business arrangement in clear terms, with as few numbers as possible, so as not to confuse readers.

The reporters described the business arrangement that was taking place in a judge’s courtroom, between Blockbuster lawyers and movie studio lawyers, as an auction. This description helps the readers understand the tension and what the situation was like.

Checkler and Spector also explain in clear terms that Blockbuster wants to sell parts of the company in order to help pay back the movie studios. They explain the process of liquidation, bidding and paying back owed money very clearly.

Some of those possible bidders are different players teaming on potential offers. Some are interested in pieces of Blockbuster — its stores, vending business or digital operations. In those cases, Blockbuster hopes it can join those disparate interests in a single bid for the company.Blockbuster will use proceeds from the sale to pay the studios for money owed, and the studios will continue shipping DVDs to Blockbuster stores.

4. Families Slice Debt to Lowest in 6 Years, The Wall Street Journal

Justin Lahart and Mark Whitehouse

From the lede, Lahart and Whitehouse set up this story to be clear, easy to understand and full of personal examples.

U.S. families — by defaulting on their loans and scrimping on expenses — shouldered a smaller debt burden in 2010 than at any point in the previous six years, putting them in position to start spending more.

They include numbers, percentages and statistics to explain U.S. household debt and how it rises or falls. The reporters break up the numbers, to ensure clarity. They don’t use more than two statistics in one sentence, and no more than three in a paragraph.

They also include reasons for the decrease in debt and a sense of before and after, cause and effect. “With the help of rising stock prices,” they said, “the decrease in debts put average household net worth at $505,000 at the end of 2010, up 5.1% from 2009.” Then they include that this figure is still below the peak of $595,000 in 2007, before housing prices plunged. This information is important to include and offers context. Irrelevant information is not included in the article.

The numbers and statistics they use in the article are important and help give context to the story. When the reporters give personal examples of people decreasing their debt, they included statistics about personal savings rates rising in 2010 from 2005, giving context.

The personal savings rate averaged 5.8% in 2010, up from a low of 1.4% in 2005, and back to a level last seen in the early 1990s.

While Lahart and Whitehouse give some reason for readers to be content with the lowering debt rates, they also don’t sugarcoat or make the issue seem nonexistent. They make sure to give all sides of the issue. They explain that solace cannot and has not been found in improving debt numbers because there are “worries over rising commodity prices, Chinese trade and the threat to Middle East oil supplies.”

This is not a simple story where one group of people are affected, and Lahart and Whitehouse don’t try to simplify it, though they do explain it to readers clearly and effectively. They make sure to address all the groups involved and impacted. The reporters explain that the “shrinking debt burden” can cause U.S. consumers to buy more, which can contribute to world-wide recovery.

At the end of the article, the reporters give a personal detail about one woman struggling to pay her monthly expenses. She lost a high-paying job and spent her retirement on living while she was looking for a job, she said. Lahart and Whitehouse include this personal anecdote at the end of the article to leave the reader with the way the economy and debt is affecting some people, more than we know. They first explain the issue, describe some signs of improvement and then repeat the point that this can’t be a call for celebration, as not everyone is out of the debt hole and not everyone can spend.

5. Part One: A Difficult Journey; From Rural Hardship to Urban Adversity, The Washington Post

Leon Dash

Dash wrote a series of articles for The Washington Post about poverty. He focused on the interrelationships between poverty, racism, illiteracy, lack of education, drug abuse, crime and why these persist through generations.

This is a great example of explanatory journalism because it is an extensive, in-depth look at how people fall into and remain in poverty, and how their children and grandchildren remain in the cycle. He reports on and researches several aspects of the story, searching to understand so he can explain it to readers.

He writes these articles about the choices one poor woman in D.C., Rosa Lee, had and made. These choices show how poverty and all of the other interconnected aspects cause and contribute to poverty and lack of options. Dash tries to understand and research the connections between these aspects of poverty and how the cause it.

He focuses on Lee and her several children and grandchildren that live in her small apartment in D.C. Dash includes many details, and many revealing details, about Lee and her family.

He describes Lee as a safety net for her children, a great image and concept that helps the reader understand.

One revealing detail Dash includes in the article is:

Bobby, Ducky, Patty, Ronnie and Richard live a kind of nomadic existence, bouncing from friends’ apartments, to jail, to the street, to Rosa Lee’s. All five are addicted to heroin or cocaine. On this particular day, Ronnie, 38, is staying with one of Rosa Lee’s brothers; Richard, 36, is in jail on a parole violation.

Dash explains that Lee also has other sons who have somehow escaped the cycle of poverty and don’t rely on her.

Dash breaks up the articles into several parts, calling them chapters. Chapter One: A Survival Network, Chapter Three: Sharecropping Days, Chapter Four: Segregated City, Chapter Five: Emergency and so on. The other articles in the series are also broken up into chapters, or sections.

Breaking up the articles in this way helps readers understand the important, heavy, complex information. The sections almost serve as different scenes in a movie, much like offering a wide shot then close-up shots of Lee and her family and how poverty manifests itself.

In this first article of the series, Dash goes directly into the reasons for Lee’s poverty and continued struggles. He explains her past.

Stomach pains awaken her every morning by 6:30, an enduring reminder of her years as a heroin addict. The cramps linger until she can get to the city methadone clinic for the 55-milligram dose that curbs her craving for the drug.

Through these articles and this article, Dash is trying to understand and explain to the reader why “poverty is a phenomenon that has devastated Americans of all races, in rural and urban communities.” But he also takes his research and reporting a step further by trying to understand why and how poverty “has disproportionately affected black Americans living in the nation’s inner cities.”

He aims at understanding, and thus helping the reader understand:

  • The differing outcomes of African Americans who migrated in the first half of the century from rural poverty in the South to cities.
  • How and why some migrant families “prospered against considerable odds,” he said.
  • How and why other families, like Lee’s, “became mired in lives marked by persistent poverty, drug abuse, petty and violent crime and periodic imprisonment,” he said.

He uses first person at times to aid in the narrative construction of the article. There is also a musical quality in his words and writing. These stories and articles are crafted.

Dash writes in a way that is unusual to most journalism. He includes himself in the article, drawing attention to him being a reporter, Lee becoming more comfortable with the tape recorder he uses. He also draws connections between Lee and himself, which help the reader understand.

When she was selling heroin on the streets of Northwest Washington in the mid- 1970s, I was writing about the devastating effects of heroin trafficking on some of those same streets.

Dash definitely thought about who was impacted and affected by poverty while writing this article. He looks at several reasons and contributors for poverty and why lawmakers have not been able to make headway on lessening poverty rates.

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