The Rise of Explanatory Journalism

Our end goal isn’t telling you what just happened, or how we feel about what just happened, it’s making sure you understand what just happened.
— Vox.com
Ezra Klein, Melissa Bell, Matthew Yglesias and Trei Brundrett announce the launch of the news site Vox.com

I've watched with increasing excitement the development of new ventures in explanatory journalism, such as Vox.com by Ezra Klein, Matthew Yglesias and their team; Fiverthirtyeight.com from Nate Silver and his team; and The Upshot from David Leonhardt.

The reason for these new ventures: the news does a poor job of explaining material to the public - an embarrassment in a connected world and something we hope will soon change.

But I want to tie this back to my usual topic of energy. Big complicated issues such as Peak Oil and Climate Change often have more than enough experts, what they lack are skilled communicators and a process that makes it OK to act.

I thought about this a few months ago as an impossibly low dusting of snow brought Atlanta, GA to its knees. The public began to ask who was to blame, and a Washington Post article wondered if the fault belonged to the meteorologists.

Two quotes, one from the article's author, Jason Samenow, and another from the Weather Channel's Bryan Norcross, both illustrate the problems we have of communicating big challenges and translating our communication into action. And while they both relate to weather events, it's easy to see how they also apply to our larger energy and climate problems:

...our jobs do not stop at simply issuing a forecast. We have to do everything we can to make sure the correct decisions are made from those forecasts. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating, a perfect forecast followed by bad decisions equates to a failed forecast. It’s like multiplying a million by zero.
— Jason Samenow, The Washington Post
Somewhere and somehow somebody has got to take the lead on closing the threat-understanding gap between forecasters, decision-makers, and the public. It’s not simple because of the division of responsibilities between various federal, state, and local agencies in a disaster. But, we’ve seen too many instances where good-enough weather forecasts have lead to bad decisions and poor public communications. The issue is partly science, which we should be able to solve with an organized effort by the National Weather Service, FEMA, and others.

But there’s another big problem, which the Georgia governor articulated very well in his new[s] conference. He was more afraid to be wrong in closing down the city, than he was of people being stranded in their cars. Until we can develop a system that keeps politics out of it and lets science and good judgment drive the decision-making bus, this kind of thing is going to keep happening.
— Bryan Norcross, The Weather Channel
 Traffic inches along the connector of Interstate’s 75 and 85 as snow blankets Metro Atlanta on Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 28, 2014 as seen from the Pryor Street overpass.  (AP Photo/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Ben Gray)

Traffic inches along the connector of Interstate’s 75 and 85 as snow blankets Metro Atlanta on Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 28, 2014 as seen from the Pryor Street overpass.  (AP Photo/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Ben Gray)

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