Explanatory journalism is important when the oversaturated news flow mixes the secondary with the essential, blurring the guidelines. When the requirement to get quick and short answers to difficult questions is fatal. That is to say, almost always.
Explanatory journalism tries to separate the important from the noise with simple, sometimes naive and provocative questions, and talk about it in human language, without academicism and bureaucracy.
Everything depends on the tone. This is the opinion of Alexander Borzenko, a journalist who has been creating content in various explanatory formats for many years, who conducted a course in Yerevan with Denis Dmitriev, a fact-checker at the Meduza Разбор section.
Alexander Borzenko is the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the Arzamas scientific platform, the author of several podcasts, and a few years ago a Meduza journalist. He tried to explain exactly what is happening in Russia and what is important for the reader.
It is especially useful for the Armenian media field to see how the journalist and the fact-checker work in teams on those two authoritative Russian platforms. They are two different professions, one is not complete without the other. Everything is checked (numbers, context, quotes, substantiations).
This is the case even in Arzamas, although the platform deals with the heritage of history and art, it invites serious experts and it seems that there will be no mistakes in that field. “You won’t believe how often they do happen,” said Alexander.
You present various topics with card catalogs and explanatory formats, starting from evergreen or fun questions, ending with the urgent references of the day. What are the primary explanatory formats?
Explanatory journalism is especially important when there is information chaos and you don’t know what to refer to.
Also when prohibitive laws are in place, which are passed very quickly. When there is “white noise” around you, you need guidelines so that the context does not get lost, you are familiar with the chain of events, you know what to do.
By and large, explanatory journalism is no different from journalism, as it emphasizes the basis of evidence, fact-checking, contextualization, working with documents, the ability to compare, and so on. But the main thing is the tone, which in explanatory formats is like a dialogue, a short and accessible question and answer.
If there is a question, the answer should be as simple, concise and substantial as possible. That is, there must be a real answer.
Sometimes it is like a guide or explanation, instruction on what to do. And sometimes we try to answer, so to speak, shameful questions that people would like to know the answers to but are ashamed to ask. Or it is necessary to simplify confusing and tangled documents and laws and write them in human language, so to speak, to translate from Russian to Russian.
Explanatory journalism simply does not build intrigue and does not joke with the reader, and it is good when the answer to the question is in the very first sentence. Even if that answer is unknown. It seems to be a conversation with yourself.
For example, when Russia labeled Meduza as a “foreign agent,” Meduza prepared a piece of material and answered the question “What will happen next?” We do not know.
When the news is alarming, the editorial office does not try to manipulate that alarm but reduces the level of alarm by being informative.
Anxiety sells well in the media, and journalists often tend to concentrate feelings of anxiety, fear, and instability. What should you do if you are a journalist?
When the coronavirus was at its most alarming, I decided to study what the media was writing about during the widespread spread of the Spanish flu that broke out a hundred years ago, as well as the so-called Russian flu of the 19th century (it was also a variant of the coronavirus).
I searched American and British newspapers and found that there was more manipulation in both the headlines and the illustrations than there is today. I suppose it has always been so.
And yes, panic sells well.
There is a very delicate outline, which in my opinion is difficult to touch because when there really is a cause for alarm, we don’t do any good by mitigating it. It is another matter that the journalist’s job is probably to find that very line between information and manipulation. If the situation is really dangerous, should we actually write in such a way that people simply cannot sleep out of fear?
When we use explanatory formats, we always take into account the principle that knowledge reduces anxiety, helps to orient.
But on the other hand, the one who multiplies the knowledge increases the sorrow, as it is said in the famous book. Sometimes, overwhelmed with information, we choose not to know. Probably an instinct for self-defense as well.
There was a moment when I refused to follow the news, because the information about the epidemic was really everywhere.
But it is understandable that if we do not read quality texts on any topic, we start making more assumptions and as a result, get scared.
And calm, quality explanatory texts, which are not necessarily optimistic, at least help to understand what we can be afraid of in reality, and not to invent and drown in what we invent.
After all, smart people say you should not be afraid, you should know.
I think when you do not know what to do, it is enough to know what not to do for sure.
And how can explanatory journalism be useful in the case of politicized newsflows?
It seems to me that any good journalism is useful for understanding the political context. That is, literate, conscientious work is based on clear research, sources, facts and their verification. Maybe I’m saying a lot of redundant things now, but that is the only criterion.
And explanatory journalism can sometimes be very unexpectedly useful.
In Russia, for example, there is such a political situation that you can be surprised by the news and at the same time have a stroke without knowing what to do with the received information.
You can see that one of them was arrested and the other was called a foreign agent (by the way, he can no longer run his Instagram page without mentioning that he is an agent, even though that page is only about fashion). You see that they go to search your acquaintance’s house, then they come to search your house and you are arrested.
In such political situations, I think there is only one well-known trick that always works: you have to help others.
There is a concept – learned helplessness, when you are disappointed and do not see a goal. It is not accidental that people in that situation start, for example, writing letters to prisoners, helping their families, raising money for human rights projects.
Explanatory texts, which teach how to be in a specific situation and how to resist chaos and darkness, can play a big role here.
In such cases, the instructions are in great demand. Man wants to make use of himself.
And especially in incomprehensible and difficult situations.
Is trust in the state important?
Unfortunately, the situation in Russia is such that people instinctively do not expect anything good from the state (with very few exceptions). In medical, social and many other issues, the state still plays a big role, but sometimes good initiatives are made not thanks to the state, but in spite of the state.
In fact, it is a very controversial and difficult issue, and when, for example, some philanthropists cooperate with the state, they are often criticized.
Most of the media in Armenia, being involuntarily in opposition, thickens the already dark colors. And the state is late, it misses the opportunity, it is unable to give the right answers, instead, it tightens sanctions. What should a journalist do when there is really a lot of darkness behind state decisions?
I can say from the Russian experience. When I worked for Meduza and other socio-political magazines, I often heard, “why do you only provide negative information?”
But life is such that negative news is the most important. If a civil servant does a good deed, for example, feeds homeless dogs, that is certainly good, but other media will definitely write about it, and if you position yourself as a serious platform, it is not worth spending time on that news.
Of course, it would be strange if the media did not deliberately write about the good news of public importance, for example, the repeal of bad laws.
But in the end, good journalism is when you write something that people would rather not know about. About what is hidden.
Some may find this to be controversial, but in many cases, the bad news is more important than good news.
At least in Russia, because the good news is part of the state propaganda.
And what can you do? You have to remind the audience that, yes, our goal is not to lift up the mood of the audience but to talk about what’s important.
Arzamas is now trying to make academic knowledge attractive in flexible and affordable formats. What do you value first? And how important is money?
You can work with knowledge in different ways. Here, too, there is a fine line. Sometimes we want to do something new, important and beautiful, realizing very well that few people will watch and read what we do, and it will not bring us money or recognition. But we do it just the same.
We have content that is only available by subscription. Enlightenment projects bring us money, mainly in the field of online education.
We sell series, which we call sex courses in our internal lingo. They are interesting to everyone. For example, it turned out that everyone was interested in the series about Hitler. And right after that series, the volume of subscriptions sharply increased.
With the money we receive, we can also create, order and build other content. But no matter what we do, we maintain our standards: we research, check, verify, compare.
Of course, money is important. But we are not guided only by business rules.
After all, the most complex and unpopular topics can be sold if, roughly speaking, you have such a goal. But it is important that the sale is not an end in itself, that it remains a place of excitement and pleasure of creating something new.
Usually, when you sell well, you are more likely to become a well-sold content factory, where it is very easy to blur the quality.
Personally, it is important for me that platforms dealing with knowledge do not become captive to the available formats, to put it bluntly, do not depend on views and subscriptions.
In fact, it is much more interesting to create less familiar but valuable content.
I think there are times when it is impossible to read the news all the time. Sometimes it is necessary to hear about Shakespeare.
It is a little comforting and in a sense a means for reconciling with life.
When you change the scale, you see that there have always been difficult times, but that did not stop the beauty from appearing. In a way, it is comforting.
Interview by Nune Hakhverdyan