All of the words, and all of the music

That’s what Michael Gartner, 40 year reporter and editor, said it takes to craft powerful, compelling explanatory journalism. Business writing is also tricky, because it revolves around technical facts and terms. These two genres are no reason to abandon creativity, he said. It’s even more important to find a theme and hammer it home, because readers might not get through the topic without a journalist’s help. It takes great time and effort to create an engaging explanatory piece, but it is possible.

In a series about America’s wealthiest individuals and coporations, David Kocieniewski kept his readers’ eyes from glazing over. The pieces in this collection of hard-hitting reporting could have been filled with jargon and technical language capable of isolating most readers, but he kept that out of it. His stories were relatable, tailored to the needs of the readers. Technical writing can be a trap, but Kocieniewski stayed out of it. Why does this matter to me? How can I relate these facts and figures to my own life? What is the purpose of this story? He answered these questions by translating technical language, repeating his points and most of all, being passionate. He found a theme, and he drove it home. Something isn’t right if General Electric claimed a tax benefit of $3.2 billion in 2010, when many Americans lost jobs, homes and went hungry. This was a business issue, and Kocieniewski made his readers care.

Science writing has the potential to engage readers by offering new information on interesting topics. However, it must be dealt with carefully–science knowledge is usually specific and often exclusive. Not everyone is familiar with the same terms and theories. The staff of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel overcame this challenge in their series about a rare illness and a new DNA technique that could cure it. People were the real focus of this story–parents trying to save their son, doctors trying to contribute to medicine. Finding the focus and making readers care is what allowed this story to succeed. This in-depth about genetic code and laboratory procedures could have been riddled with jargon, but it spoke to the humanity behind the science. Rather than smother the story in statistics and numbers, the series came with graphics to explain the process of researching DNA. It relies on a narrative, not a lengthy numerical explanation to engage readers.

Julie Cart and Bettina Boxall employ the same storytelling techniques in their analysis of wildfire response for the Los Angeles Times. The crux of this story is why it would matter to readers. The story isn’t that these fires are happening, it’s that there are changes in airplane response that can help solve the problem. Readers need to know what a DC-10 and C-130 are to understand the story, but the authors teach us before we even realize. We want to understand, so we don’t hesitate to keep reading. And when the complex is broken down, we handle it even better. An illustration takes care of all the technical information that would be lost in words. That lets us focus on the important stuff–understanding a story and its effects on our lives and the world we live in. And that’s the point of journalism, isn’t it?

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