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Improving accountability reporting: How to make the best of journalism better for audiences

By many measures, never have there been more efforts in journalism to scrutinize and hold powerful people and institutions accountable.

The number of news organizations doing fact-checking journalism has nearly tripled since 2014. Non-profit investigative news has expanded, along with a clearer effort in all kinds of reporting to call out deception and avoid false balance. Add that to the Internet’s unlimited distribution system, and the result is that news consumers today have unprecedented access to a massive menu of well-reported journalism.

The unfortunate parallel, however, is the explosion in the distribution of misinformation, attacks on journalists and a free press, and the rise of fake news — material that is intentionally false but designed to mimic journalism. A recent Stanford University study found that fake news stories about presidential candidates were shared 37.6 million times in 2016. An American Press Institute study showed that misinformation shared on Twitter far outpaces any attempts to correct it.

Few journalists would say that their efforts to promote facts and quash misinformation, especially during recent political campaigns, have been wholly successful.

“I’ve written that fact check five times and people are still repeating” the misinformation, one fact-checker said at a post-election conference sponsored by API in January.

At a post-election media forum in Pittsburgh on the problem of misinformation, some panelists advocated for more reporters to produce more content — with no changes in approach.

Is doing “more of the same” really the answer? What if there were a more effective way to minimize political divisions, promote knowledge and understanding of facts?

Recoding and reconsidering stories

In this report, we want to explore a series of ideas people in news are working on that, taken together, will create a different approach to accountability journalism — work that encompasses fact-checking, explanatory and investigative reporting, but more generally applies to the journalistic work of holding the powerful accountable. Our proposals include recommendations about tools and technology, but also about format, tone and presentation.

In some ways the approaches and ideas described here involve what’s known as “explainer journalism” or “alternative story forms.” But the work and the concepts behind them are broader and deeper. You might call it the recoding of information in a more accessible manner: emphasizing the non-narrative, data or visual elements made possible by digital news.

By whatever name, the key goal is to offer a more accessible path for audiences to understand and accept new information, especially when it involves civic affairs and public debate.

The recoding approach also tries to move beyond journalism as a lecture, which can strike many audiences today as a “because-I said-so” presentation. That style and tone are ineffective, says Will Moy, director of the UK fact-checking program Full Fact, in a recent Wired podcast:

“Let’s imagine you’re at a party…and somebody’s lipping off at you about their political opinions and somebody else walks in and says, ‘Look, I have a Ph.D. in this topic and you’re wrong.’ Would you expect anyone at that party to be grateful and instantly on the spot change their minds? Of course not.

“And if your idea of what fact-checking is that we should turn up, tell the world they’re wrong and expect everyone to thank us, then of course that’s not going to work.”

The idea of a reconfigured type of journalism, aimed at helping audiences understand facts and avoid confusion, pre-dates the current era of rampant misinformation, says longtime visual journalist Rick Crotts.

He points to the concept of “explainers,” which grew from a need in print journalism more than a dozen years ago. Crotts, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor who teaches visual communication at Kennesaw State University, said that newspaper art directors and designers were realizing that “readers wanted different speeds and different story forms to make the reading experience more enjoyable.”

Crotts, who prefers the term “alternative story forms” or ASFs, said newspaper readers are now more of “a visual society. We’re spoiled, impatient, even lazy. When we want information, we say show me, don’t tell me.”

A more-visual/less-text presentation is an important part of an alternative story form. Particularly in an era of social media, mobile platforms, misinformation and fake news, that format “can make presenting the facts much easier, cutting through the bias,” Crotts said.

As the AJC’s presentation editor in the mid-2000s, Crotts helped reporters find more visual ways to present complex topics. He put together a catalog of more than 60 alternative story forms — all aimed at “grabbing the reader’s attention” before they turned the printed page.

He cited the Poynter Institute’s “eye-tracking” research, conducted over the last decade, that confirms the value of news content presented in forms other than large blocks of black type on white paper. From the research:

“We found that alt story forms like a Q&A, a timeline, a fact box or a by-the-numbers box helped readers remember facts presented to them. Readers of prototype 3 — the most visually graphic version, without a traditional narrative — answered the most questions correctly.”

Newspapers’ digital migration has provided many more ways to present stories online, said Crotts, and fewer excuses to publish a “50-inch, all-text story.” This complex story by the AJC on state laws about patient abuse uses data and an interactive grid to present facts far more accessibly than endless paragraphs of text.

Adam Playford, an editor at the Tampa Bay Times where journalists recently explained a controversial building project using Lego pieces, noted that “online storytelling has also opened our eyes to how much readers like consuming stories in different forms. That’s definitely not new — [printed publications] have all included those ideas for many years.”

“But the degree to which we’re moving toward new forms is clearly accelerated by the very real, very concrete data we see online, showing how much more readers respond to news that’s digestible, skimmable and speaks to them like real people.”

Jay Rosen, an associate professor of journalism at New York University, recalls being “totally blown away” by a 2008 public radio project on the mortgage crisis called “Giant Pool of Money.” The broadcast prompted him to start the “Building a Better Explainer Project,” a one-year partnership in 2010 with ProPublica and NYU graduate students.

Rosen cites work done by Matt Thompson (formerly of NPR and now at The Atlantic), who maintains that readers need two elements to understand news stories: the latest events and basic facts. Too often, the latter is omitted in a typical news story. Rosen believes that’s due, at least in part, to an outdated focus on the traditional printed newspaper and its restrictions on space and time.

“[Newspaper] news is not built to help the user understand,” he says. “The news is built for production. … Everything lines up for this need to have the newspaper land on the doorstep” on a tight timetable.

Giving readers the facts they need — in a format designed to attract and retain them — can be a key to reducing misperceptions and the spread of false information, says writer Siyanda Mohutsiwa.

“One thing that fake news [websites] do that traditional media doesn’t do is to explain complex issues in a simple way,” said Mohutsiwa, speaking to a group of journalists at a recent international meeting on the problem of misinformation. “The thing with fake news is that it is so easy to digest.”

The degree to which we’re moving toward new forms is clearly accelerated by the very real, very concrete data we see online, showing how much more readers respond to news that’s digestible, skimmable and speaks to them like real people.

Ideas for reaching the resistant

One of the paradoxes in the growth of accountability journalism is that it comes as the public’s trust in media has trended downward, reaching a record low in the most recent poll from Gallup. A Pew Research Center report showed only 18 percent of adults had “a lot of trust” in national media.

Complicit in those sinking levels of trust in media is the prevalence of fake news and misinformation. Nearly two-thirds of those responding to a Harvard-Harris poll this year said they believe there’s “a lot of fake news in the mainstream media.”

The poll, along with other recent surveys and research, also shows a distinct partisan divide over trust in the media. Eighty percent of Republicans believe “there is a lot of fake news in the mainstream media”; 60 percent of Independents and 53 percent of Democrats said the same. And 84 percent of all respondents said it’s “hard to know what to believe online.”

In a recent Media Insight Project report (the American Press Institute is part of this initiative), only 8 percent of Republicans said “news from media is very accurate,” compared with 31 percent of Democrats.

These troubling figures, we believe, are at least in part a reflection on the way traditional media present information — and a call to actively find better methods of presenting and distributing solidly reported information.

For example, political fact-checking reporting — which in the U.S. has changed little since its modern launch a decade ago — selects politicians’ statements and assesses whether they were lying, telling the truth, or somewhere in between. Our “recoded journalism” approach, with its focus on explanatory and issue-based reporting, would dive into facts about issues, rather than targeting politicians and the veracity of their statements. The absence of that “who-lied-more” tone can help mitigate political resentment and accusations of bias.

(A separate report, on how these ideas can apply to fact-checking and how to reimagine fact-checking more generally so that it becomes broader and less polarized, will be coming from API later this year.)

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