January 13, 2010

ExplainThis Beta Is Live

Check out Jay Rosen’s ExplainThis project.

I found this idea particularly interesting when first proposed because it opens up an avenue of rhetorical inquiry regarding journalistic questions.

The site offers this advice for asking a good question:

Explainthis.org is about making journalism more responsive to the public, and to users of the news system. So our first advice is to consult your curiosity. Ask the sort of question a really good journalist should be able to answer for you by doing the reporting necessary to find out. A “good question” for explainthis.org reaches beyond what is easily known by checking the web.

  • » It cannot be answered by Googling the key terms or finding the relevant entries at Wikipedia. It isn’t simple a matter of historical record. (Example: “Did the 9/11 commission have subpoena power?”)
  • » It isn’t loaded with so much subjectivity or emotion as to make all possible answers subject to endless argument. (Example: “Is the United States still a Christian nation?”)
  • » It doesn’t suggest an answer in the form of a question. (Example: “Is racism the reason so many urban school systems are failing?”)

A good question comes from following the news closely and paying attention to public debate. It likely to be of interest to many of your fellow citizens (though not all, of course.) The answer isn’t obvious, and finding an answer isn’t impossible. An example we’ve used to explain explainthis.org is… Why is it that eight years after the September 11th attacks, there’s still no memorial at Ground Zero?

Chances are a lot of people would like to know the answer to that. The Wikipedia entries on the September 11 attacks and the World Trade Center site don’t tell us. Putting the question “why is there no memorial at ground zero?” into Google is a start but it does not give us an answer. The most likely way of getting a decent answer is for a journalist or team of journalists to review the history, dig in, ask questions, put together the relevant facts and venture some explanations. That’s what we’re looking for. The questions you have that require good journalism to answer.

Here’s what I said about “journalistic questions” and “journalistic answers”:

A “journalistic question” is one that seeks knowledge (organized information embedded in a context) that will eventually lead to wisdom (the capacity to know what body of knowledge is relevant to the solution of significant problems).

A “journalistic answer” is knowledge delivered in a politically, socially, and/or economically useful form.

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