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


For more than three years at the American Press Institute, we’ve focused on a topic that we believe 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 people in power accountable for what they say and do. Modern fact-checking has been around about a dozen years; and accountability reporting, of course, 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; 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 keep these distracted and distrusting audiences? Working with coauthors Lori Kelley and Julie M. Elman — both respected visual journalists in the U.S. —  we collected research, interviewed experts and studied dozens of newsroom projects. We propose a recoding of traditional accountability journalism: offering 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 rethinking long stories — endless pages of black-on-white type unbroken by visual attempts to engage and impact the reader. It means moving beyond journalism as a lecture, which can be uninviting particularly to readers who are 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. (You can read more about these in our full report.)

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 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 aren’t 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 visualization

Where possible, use data rather than words to tell parts of the story. “Figures are better than text,” for teaching, learning and impact, said 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.”

Storytelling and facts

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

“You need to connect with people on a basic level about things,” he says. “And 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 just as essential. “Make sure that those facts can fit into the lives of people who don’t agree with you,” said 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 journalists must recognize that emotions can play a part in how or if people will accept facts. Images, interactives, color and font sometimes can  illustrate those emotions better than words can.

  • Comic-strip or graphic narratives can “put a face” to issues that other story forms can’t, says 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 and 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

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 don’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

Sharing a story may be the final step in the reader’s process, but how the content might be shared should be a discussion that happens early in the creators’ process.

  • Test the project before publication to make sure it looks good and works properly on social media platforms.
  • Framing information in a positive or solutions-oriented manner will encourage more sharing, Sharot notes. “People are more likely to share a positive message than a negative message.”
  • And, Sharot says, remember that “people want to be right.” Stories that provide readers with trustworthy, fact-checked information also will make them more likely to share widely.

In the report, we also feature interviews with reporters and editors at 11 news organizations who have produced exceptional accountability reporting. And we’re looking for more examples: If you have a project to share, please .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Explore the full report here.