Explanatory Journalism synthesizes, clarifies, adds depth, and context to issues that are complex or confusing to the reader. It is less an effort to report the news and more an exercise in making sense of the important news stories that come at us with such speed and currency, and in such great volume.

The explainer gives the reader perspective that he/she might miss with a straightforward narrative and accompanying photographs.



It all starts with reporting and gathering background research on the topic.

Look for experts early on in the process, as they can point you to new research, databases, government agencies, or even to major stories that will help you to better explain the subject to your audience.

In addition to the selected sources listed here, use scholarly journals, news and subject-specific databases, research institutes, government agencies, and interest groups, to look for experts, and to gather research material:

The Brookings Institution Experts   Allows keyword search; great topic options in left nav bar.

CUNY Faculty and Staff Experts

Pew Research Center Experts

Domestic Violence Experts

Council on Foreign Relations Experts

Leadership Directories available via the J-School Database List (another decent source for finding experts)

Remember authors love to talk about the subjects they are well versed in.

A Google search for experts is always in order:  experts “childhood immunizations”, experts “food safety”

LinkedIn experts search



As you set a plan in motion, think about the questions you will need to answer, and, think of the best and most likely source for your answers. (think tanks, report, watchdog organization, academic, public official)

Popular News Databases – clip searches help to provide the background you will need as you not only look for experts on topic, but inform yourself so that you can prepare smart questions, the answers to which will be grist for your explainer.

  • LexisNexis, Factiva, Google Scholar Use the Advanced Search page to look for scholarly articles

Scholarly Journals

Reports, Studies, Transcripts…

  • For policy issues consider the National Conference of State Legislatures, where one can find a breakdown of laws in each state on any issue.
  • Journalist’s Resource database of scholarly research on a wide variety of topics, collected for journalists. An open-access site that curates scholarly studies and reports.
  • NYC Council Committee Reports and Testimony Click on a Committee, then a Meeting Details, then File#, then Details tab for Report, Testimony and Transcripts.
  • Cryptome Leaked documents. Search within site using Google Toolbar
  • INFOdocket publishes reports from government, think tanks, interest groups…
  • C-Span Archives: Every C-SPAN program aired since 1987. Accessible through the database and electronic archival systems developed and maintained by the C-SPAN Archives.
  • GovTrack.  Track and research legislation before Congress; find voting records, bill sponsors, calendar of upcoming committee meetings…
  • CNN Transcripts

 The Stats (a selection)


If your story’s intent is to explain the impact of the Obama administration’s Drone Strike policy on U.S. efforts to defeat terrorism, then a search of Nexis and or Google alone won’t cut it.


If you are attempting to write an explainer on the development of the medical marijuana industry in the U.S. …



The Explainer Comes Wearing Many Hats

As we quickly review examples of ‘explainer’ journalism, keep an eye open for the behind-the-scenes research so vital to the clarity of each explainer.



SLATE Explainers



In 2014, Ezra Klein, formerly of the NYTimes, created Vox in an effort to explain traditional news stories.  Vox Cards or Explainer Cards is one way in which Klein and company present explainers.

Vox Card Stacks.  Vox Cards break complex news down to bite-sized, informative and manageable stories.



The use of Graphs and Charts when attempting to visually explain a complex issue can do wonders to shed light on the story. Investigate a wide range of sources and be sure to get facts and expert opinions from those in the field.

Greece Economic Crisis  By the numbers – the Greek economic crisis.  Produced by The Economist.

http://si.wsj.net/public/resources/images/AI-CH298_MALASS_G_20140313083311.jpg The Hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370



Timelines or Chronologies are valuable explainers. They help the writer to trace the origin of a particular issue, show its progression and provide the writer with a template on which to anticipate its next iteration

Origin of the Zika Virus



A good graphic can be an excellent platform for serious explanatory journalism; this is the case with a graphic published in the Canadian paper National Post:

Anatomy of a Stoning  takes a custom which is not only anathema to those of us who live in the West, but offensive if viewed in photographic or video form and, using the medium of a graphic narrative, informs its readership of the ancient and still-practiced parts of the Iranian Penal Code – the act of stoning adulterers and murderers.

Note the sourcing of research material used for this strip.



Maps give the reader a visual – they show where a place is located. They offer context for many of us who are geographically challenged.

Sudan: A Country Divided


In Class Sample:

How Hard is it to Shoot Down a Passenger Plane?

Have a read of this short, concise and deeply researched explainer.  How and where might the author have gone to find verification for the news, facts and data included in this explainer?

Possible Sources:  Janes.com – military database, weapons training specialist, Malaysia Air website, news websites.






JULY 17 2014 4:10 PM

How Hard Is It to Shoot Down a Passenger Plane?

How rebels in Ukraine got a missile launcher.

By Boer Deng

The site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash is seen in the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014. Wreaking this kind of havoc wouldn’t be hard if you had the right equipment.

Photo by Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters

Update, 6:30 p.m.: U.S. officials have confirmed that Malaysia Airline Flight 17 was shot down by a missile.

After the sad, still unexplained loss of Malaysia Airlines 370 in March, another luckless Malaysia Airlines flight crashed Thursday. It was presumably shot down by militants, while flying over the conflict-torn Donetsk region of Ukraine. Footage of smoking wreckage appeared on YouTube. All 295 passengers on board are thought to have been killed.

The flight, en route to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam, was flying at 33,000 feet when reportedly hit by a projectile from a Buk missile launcher on the ground. Passenger planes typically fly at this altitude, and a Boeing 777 would be traveling at about 0.84 Mach, or a bit more than 600 mph, according to Boeing. Wouldn’t such a plane be hard to shoot down? Just how hard is it to shoot down a plane flying at cruising altitude?


The Explainer


A Buk missile launcher is a mobile system designed by the Soviets in the 1970s, which has since been upgraded over several iterations. The latest model, the Buk-M3, will be standard issue for the Russian military beginning in 2016. Militants are more likely to have older models Buk-M1 or Buk-M2, which Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union. These can launch missiles about 70,000 feet in the air and have sophisticated tracking systems for locking on to targets. They are designed specifically to shoot down planes. Buk systems have also been exported to China, India, and Georgia.

So for a person who’s trained, it “would not be hard to shoot down a plane of that size, going at that speed, from the ground,” says Steve Mastalerz, a weapons training specialist, and would certainly be “a deliberate act” using the system’s homing system. Commercial airlines, including Lufthansa, Virgin, and KLM, are all diverting their flights from eastern Ukraine.

Boer Deng writes for Nature. Follow her on Twitter.



  • Be clear about your objective: reader clarity and understanding
  • More is better; as you gather facts and data for your explainer, be mindful that you may not be certain just how much of that material you will eventually use. The larger your basket of information, the more options you have at your disposal, and the more readily apparent irrelevant information will be.
  • Use statistical data that will be illustrative and will be of added value in shedding light on the issue for your reader.
  • Be judicious in your use of numbers; keep in mind that an abundance of stats may yield an unintended consequence – confusion.
  • When using statistical data to illumine and inform, you may find a happy medium with no more than two or three data points per paragraph.
  • When using web search engines, remember that different search engines have different page caches; be sure to try a few: Google, Bing, Blekko,