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Recoding accountability journalism: how to make your best reporting even better

It’s time for a makeover

Since 2014, the American Press Institute (API) has focused on a topic that is crucial to living an informed life in a democracy: accountability journalism.

Accountability journalism encompasses any type of reporting -- investigative, data, enterprise, political fact-checking -- that holds powerful people accountable for their actions and words. Modern fact-checking has existed since roughly 2004 and accountability reporting, of course, has been around for much longer.

It’s time for a makeover.

Accountability journalism represents the very best journalism in the industry. But even the best journalism has been disrupted by the emergence of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. I am referring to the shrinking of newsroom staffs, the explosion of media choices for consumers, the constant demand for audience attention, the dwindling newspaper industry, and, yes, ‘fake news’ and misinformation.

How can we regain and retain our distracted and distrusting audiences? Working with co-authors Lori Kelley and Julie M. Elman -- both respected visual journalists in the US -- the API collected research, interviewed experts, and studied dozens of newsroom projects. We propose a recoding of traditional accountability journalism. Our model offers a more accessible path for people to understand and accept new information, especially when it involves controversial topics and public debate.

By recoding, we mean re-thinking long stories. We mean moving beyond journalism as a lecture -- that is, endless pages of black-on-white type that are unbroken by visuals -- to engage and impact the reader. This format can be particularly uninviting to readers who are already disinclined to accept facts that don’t align with their existing beliefs.

So, where to begin? For those who want to make their best accountability reporting even better, we propose examining six important elements before embarking on your next project. Below is a summary of each, extracted from our full report.

Your audience

1 Your Audience

How well do you know your audience? Do you know what they understand, what they don’t understand, and what they would like to know more about?

Find out through conducting surveys, town hall meetings, interviews with community leaders, and readership data.

More tips from our report:

  • At press conferences, skip the bandwagon journalist questions. Ask questions that answer what your audience wants to know.
  • When writing about controversial and complicated topics, “Target the people who are unsure,” says Tali Sharot, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London and an MIT visiting professor. “The most likely people to be swayed are the people in the middle” (those who are not sure what to believe).
  • Don’t assume everything is obvious. For example, if you’re fact-checking the controversial issue of childhood vaccinations and autism, explain which diseases are targeted by vaccinations: “What are these diseases, and what do they do to children?”

Data and visualisation


Where possible, use data rather than words to tell parts of the story.

“Figures are better than text” for teaching, learning and impact, says Sharot. “They’re easier to process, they’re quicker to process, they grab our attention.”

  • Charts should be attractive and instructive, but not too complex. Before publishing, ‘test’ your chart informally. Show it to colleagues and friends to see how well they comprehend and process the information.
  • When writing about political issues, go beyond the ‘easy’ sources of information and find good data from sources across the political spectrum.
  • For controversial stories, be sure to include charts and data that support a point on which most people can agree. For instance: ‘that project will cost us a lot of money’.

Synchronise storytelling and facts


Michael Specter, author of the book Denialism and writer for the New Yorker, says “facts are not enough.”

“You need to connect with people on a basic level about things... When you do that, they respond.”

  • Surround your facts with a relatable story. While you might think that most audiences will enjoy an unusual anecdote about a patient, most people want to hear stories that are familiar and relatable, says Harvard professor Dan Gilbert.
  • Using facts and data is important, but context and relevance is equally essential. “Make sure that those facts can fit into the lives of people who don’t agree with you,” says author and radio host Brooke Gladstone.
  • Consider the sources you use to tell the story. Do your readers trust and relate to university professors? Local politicians? Doctors? Movie stars? Our research indicates that academic sources may be the most trustworthy, but every community is different. A simple survey should give you some insight.

Emotion and impact


Facts can be rigid and dry, but emotions can play a part in how, or if, people accept facts. In some cases, images, interactives, colour, and font can evoke emotions better than words.

  • Comic-strip or graphic narratives can ‘put a face’ to issues that other story forms can’t, according to reporter Ryan Schill. “Using direct quotes…and incorporating them with art drawn directly from interviews and research gives the story a lot of power.”
  • Even typography can signify certain emotions. Writer and designer Ben Hersh recently looked at the messages sent by particular typefaces. He warned, “Typography can silently influence…and it can do this as powerfully as the words it depicts.”
  • A more unusual example: In London, musicians are translating climate change data into a symphony, hoping to reach people who are resistant to climate facts. “These are still hard facts -- that’s the beauty of it,” says one of the creators. “It’s still data, it’s just using sound as the reporting tool.”

Words matter

5 Words Matter

Projects that effectively present complex topics are often short on words, focusing instead on visuals. But limited text doesn’t mean words aren’t important. In fact, fewer words means each one should be chosen carefully.

  • “The writing needs to be tight and precise without being stiff,” says Tampa Bay Times reporter Caitlin Johnston.
  • Balance positive words and phrases with negative words and phrases with a three-to-one ratio, says cognitive expert Andrew Newberg.
  • Fewer words doesn’t mean less transparency. Credit sources and provide more information but do it in a less obtrusive way, like footnotes and pop-ups.

Designing for shareability

6 Designing Shareability

The shareability of the content should be considered early in the creators’ process, even though sharing a story may be the final step.Test the project before publication to make sure it looks good and works properly on social media sharing platforms.

  • Frame information in a positive or solutions-oriented manner to encourage more sharing.. “People are more likely to share a positive message than a negative message,” Sharot notes.
  • Remember that “people want to be right,” says Sharot. Stories that provide readers with trustworthy, fact-checked information are more likely to be shared.

In the report, we also feature interviews with reporters and editors at 11 news organisations who have produced exceptional accountability reporting.

Read the full report here.

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