Contextual Journalism

If journalists want to help us understand the world, they need to provide some context.

For example, an article about Brexit politics includes the sentence: “Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrat party and an arch opponent of Brexit, [criticized] the announcements and their timing.”

Since many readers don’t know who Vince Cable is, the information about his position and views are necessary to help make sense of the quote. Without it, for most readers the sentence would translate to: “Someone criticized the announcements and their timing.” Which of course is not particularly useful or interesting.

However, news reports rarely provide this type of context for numbers. For example, many recent stories cover the news that “the president is demanding $5 billion in funding for a border wall” but very few of them include the context needed to understand that number. Is $5 billion a lot or a little in this scenario? For most readers, the sentence may as well be: “The president is demanding a number of dollars.”

For the same reason audiences need context for people and places, we need context for numbers. Here’s an attempt at the version I would like to see: “The president demanded $5 billion in funding for a border wall — triple the amount spent in 2018 on border walls and a 16% increase in overall federal spending on immigration and border security.”

I’m not asking for full-on data journalism here — just a small bit of additional information to put things in context. One or two points of comparison with basic arithmetic would be a major step forward.

I created a few more examples:

“The terrorist attacks of 9/11 killed 2996 people — comprising about one third of US deaths on that day and 2% of all mortal injuries that year. (By comparison, 42,443 US residents died in 2001 in car accidents.)” [Data from CDC]

“Researchers estimate that US involvement in the war in Iraq cost $750 billion from 2003-2010, or 3% of the federal budget during those years. (This was 200 times the amount spent on traffic safety.)”

In these examples, I tried to provide some balance by including both a larger and smaller point of reference. I also did my best to choose comparisons that most people would agree are relevant (perhaps slightly less so in the parentheticals). Of course, judgement and subjectivity is involved in choosing which comparisons to include — just like any other aspect of journalism, which always involves choices about which stories to report and which facts to highlight.

I had to spend significant time searching through documents to find the data I wanted for my comparisons — enough work to reinforce the idea that it’s unreasonable to expect casual news audiences to do this spontaneously, but not so difficult that it seems to present a major barrier to a professional newsroom. Much of what’s needed is basic government data on population statistics, economics, health, spending, etc., which can be reused across many stories. And experts already being interviewed for a story may know which metrics would provide useful context in their field.

Perhaps there’s resistance because context can make a story less sensational. “$5 billion” sounds more impressive than “a fraction of a percent of the federal budget”. But of course that’s part of why I want contextual journalism in the first place — I’m tired of hype. I’m looking for an accurate picture of what’s happening in the world.

Leave a Comment