Posted by: rcieri | September 8, 2008

An Analysis of Business and Explanatory Journalism

 Typical journalism provides just the facts in a succinct summation of current events, but in today’s world of changing technology and complex issues, an entirely different type of journalism is necessary. Business and explanatory journalism provides the background and careful, clear account needed for the average reader to understand the intricate issues prominent in his life. Several excellent examples bring out the best qualities of explanatory journalism in their explanation of environmental, medical, scientific and cultural issues.

Facing Life with a Lethal Gene 
With recent developments in research and technology, scientists have been able to link genetics to an increasing number of syndromes, disorders and disease. Amy Harmon’s story “Facing Life with a Lethal Gene,” explores both the science behind this ability and the social reasons that the affected would want or refuse to know their fates. The story begins with a lead that alludes to shock and a terrible fate for a single person. It strength lies in the fact that it leaves the reader hanging, wonder what will be the “destiny” of the woman who “inhaled sharply” and even after preparation, “never expected to hear those words.” The story continues to paint a picture of the scene when Katherine Moser discovered that she had the gene for Hungtinton’s disease, capturing all of the real-life drama in a person learning how she will eventually die but it also including a nutgraph explaining the disease’s effects. The story goes into detail about genetic testing as well, breaking it down for the average reader’s comprehension by using words like “DNA hiccup” to explain an abnormality. Instead of using scientific jargon to explain the disorder and its genetic testing, the article explores the emotional aspects in choosing know one’s own fate. Katherine Moser’s story captures both the heartache and the emotional stability that genetic testing can bring, personalizing a faceless issue. Quotes in the story are carefully selected and telling, even if they are only a few words, like “Why me?” While the story uses strong writing and sentence structures that are many and varied, its writing is still somewhat colloquial and conversational, making it easy for a reader to understand. The reporting is solid because Harmon interviewed every important person in Moser’s life, including her estranged mother. The story flows in comfortable order, with enough background and detail while still providing useful information for the reader. The ending, while simple, portrays the continuousness and relentlessness of the effects Moser’s decision in her life. The story was particularly affective because of its human element.

Plague of Plastic Chokes the Seas
In a time when environmentalism has permeated pop culture, Kenneth Weiss has explained one particularly arresting facet in detail in “Plague of Plastic Chokes the Seas.” The story begins with a lead that is full of physical detail, focusing in on one tiny aspect of the issue – an albatross chick. The shock value is high when Weiss explains that the chick drops dead in only a few hours, and the reason is that its stomach is full of a colorful assortment of trash. After this vivid anecdote, the story widens its focus, explaining the depth and breadth of the problem while using metaphor like “wreaths of feather and bone” and “the garbage path barfs” to portray the scope of the problem. It includes just enough statistical data to give the story credibility, while keeping the factoids sparsely distributed. Weiss interviewed a diverse array of scientists and environmentalists but still provided descriptive background on their lives and missions to make it easier for readers to relate to them. Complicated concepts like the flow of garbage through the ocean are explained in metaphor such as referring to the Hawaiian Islands as the unevenly spaced teeth of a comb. The article’s particular focus seems to be explaining the magnitude, which it does well by providing examples of how long and far particular pieces of trash may travel. The quotes are especially telling, breaking complex concepts into understandable terms. The ending quote in particular sums up the entire issue in one sentence.

Desperate parents chase a stem-cell miracle
“Desperate parents chase a stem-cell miracle” explores one of the best publicized and least understood issues of the time period through the eyes of one family searching for a cure. The lead paints a scene of contrast in the life of James Rossetti,  a victim of the degenerative muscle condition multiple sclerosis. The reader first sees him as an apparently healthy toddler and watches as the disease forces him into a wheel chair. The sentence structures and lengths help the story flow as statistics and scientific facts are woven into a story that is otherwise a narrative. Quotes were chosen both to explain complicated scientific concepts and the emotional reaction of the family, and scope and magnitude are shown through numbers and a few examples of other families in the same situation. The story explores the controversial science behind stem-cell research and treatments by comparing mainstream research with that of a Ukrainian doctor from whom Rossetti receives treatment. While the story does seem to draw the conclusion that the doctor’s science is unsound, it is supported by facts and testimony from other scientists. The story’s real strength lies in the fact that it is told in an emotive fashion but provides interviews from both victims and scientists. Its ending, like many stories of chronic illnesses, shows a relentlessness in locating a cure by a using a single quote.

How an Autopsy Could Save Your Life
Just by its title, “How an Autopsy Could Save Your Life,” sounds like it could be section of a textbook or informational pamphlet, but the article manages to be both informative and compelling through personalizing the issue. The lead shows the reader how one mother came to regret her decision not to have her son autopsied and moves on to a nutgraph relating the issue to the common reader. The writing in this article is not as strong as others, but it is conversation, which prevents the article from sounding like a textbook. The article is arrestingly honest about the details of the procedure while avoiding jargon and provides other scientific and statistical information give it credibility. The quotes are use both to explain concepts simply and to express family members feeling about autopsies, relating emotional and scientific aspects of the story. The article drives its point home through subtle repetition of the same piece of advice – get an autopsy.

One man and a global web of violence
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. was in a whirl of information and rumors about who and what was behind the violence, and “One man and a global web of violence” seeks to explain how it could happen. The lead zeroes in on Osama bin Laden himself, in an attempt to help readers understand his thinking, even if they did not agree with it. The interviews are integral to the success of this story, which shows a network of terrorists through the eyes of its former members. There is little reliable statistical data available, but by giving the network of Al Queda faces other than bin Laden’s, the story shows the magnitude of the terrorist network that spans across continents but is loyal to it base. Quotes enhance this inside view of the organization by further explaining the members’ rationales. The physical detail is all but absent from the story, but there is no need for it because of the nature of the organization it describes. For an American who may have been affected by the group, Stephen Engelberg’s reporting remain factual rather than taking sides with the noted absence of words like “tragedy” and “evil.” Even in explaining a concept as foreign and complex as that of a Muslim fundamentalist terrorist group, the story flows comfortably and understandably with solid writing, and it drives home its point with a simple quote at its end: “Osama bin Laden doesn’t want to negotiate.”
Great explanatory reporting seems to have a few aspects in common. While it often covers larger-than-life issues, the story is made easier to understand by personalizing it. In order to avoid overwhelming readers, numbers and statistics are used sparingly and only when necessary, providing scope and magnitude by other means like comparisons or metaphor. The story is often told in the form of a narrative rather than inverted pyramid style to make it more accessible to readers.


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