By Yonatan Gordon
There are two types of journalists in the world, with a landscape of opinions and approaches in between. On one side are the investigative journalists who spend their time researching the facts and figures from the past in order to reveal something telling for the future. Perhaps the greatest example of this today is the approach of Nate Silver, and his FiveThirtyEight.com, as we discussed in The Kabbalah of Predictive Journalism.
Then there are the explanatory journalists. While they may also dabble into investigative or predictive journalism, their primary focus remains to discuss the facts as they presently are. For the explanatory journalist, each story is viewed as continually developing, with endless opportunities to add new layers of explanation to the discussion.
The journalist that most represents this approach today is Ezra Klein and his Vox.com venture.
Understanding the News
There are many reasons why we have chosen to classify Vox as explanatory journalism, an approach that corresponds to the sefirah of binah (understanding) in Kabbalah; and FiveThirtyEight’s predictive journalism as corresponding to the sefirah of chochmah (wisdom), as explained in the our predictive journalism article.
For one, the byline used by Vox on their Twitter account is “understanding the news” (and not “becoming wise” from the news). But more than this potentially anecdotal word choice, Vox’s entire approach focuses on their ability to explain the news. This clearly relates to binah, whose sense is speech, whereas the sense of chochmah is sight. While the most ubiquitous image used to depict an investigative reporter is that of a detective with a magnifying glass, the explanatory reporter is most effective when able to speak about the subject matter clearly (even when explained using the written word).
One Long Meditation
We mentioned at the beginning that for the explanatory journalist, each story is viewed as one continuously developing or unfolding assignment. The Hebrew word for “understanding” (בִּינָה) shares the same root as “meditation” (הִתְבּוֹנְנוּת). So too, a person can continue one meditation for an entire year. In Hasidic thought, that is called a hemshech (continuation) — a series of connected discourses continued over a span of time.
This concept is represented in the “cards” Vox uses to tell stories. Since each story is viewed by explanatory journalists as perpetually developing, although new cards are added each step of the way, ideally each story should also be viewed as one long meditation.
The excitement of explanatory journalism is generated not necessarily from new stories or headlines, but from what the next card will bring — the developments and advances of the old. Although the story itself may be old, the interest and attraction depends on the explanatory journalist’s ability to remain sensitive to the new light coming from the story.
Sensitivity to Light
To be sensitive to new light takes an awareness of continual re-creation — the teaching that God re-creates reality at every moment. This is called Abraham consciousness, as we explained in Kabbalah of the News Feed.
The deeper reason why new cards are added to begin with is because the world is entirely new at every moment. Even from a moment ago, everything has now changed. The cards that comprise a story should then be viewed as stills in a movie reel, which each new addition contributing to the greater unfolding story.
What did Ezra do? He started Vox as soon as possible, knowing that it will always be a work in progress anyway(read here). But once each article is set in motion, as with Vox.com itself, the public expects to see each story continue over time. So while each story is comprised of stacks of explanatory cards now, even years in the future, we expect those stacks to continue.
Since every moment is filled with new light, new possibilities, the results should ideally be unexpected. If each new card was conceived of while writing the first, then the difference between Vox Media and Wikipedia would be hard to ascertain (a point that was brought by some journalists). This is why a sense of continual re-creation is so essential. Without a sensitivity to the new light that shines even on old stories, the difference between an explanatory and encyclopedic writer becomes blurred.
Two Types of Writers
There are writers who like to plan everything in advance — the entire Table of Contents before the book is begun. But explanatory journalists don’t plan.
Whereas an investigative journalist may plan the entire book before writing the introduction, the explanatory journalist is different. Instead, writers like Nate Silver or Malcolm Gladwell most often start with a premise or hypothesis. Then once the idea is solidified (e.g., there are outliers, or societal tipping points), then the remainder of the book or article is spent justifying that initial thought.
This is the mindset of chochmah (wisdom), whereby the momentum is to continuously look back to the original thought that started the entire thought exercise.
But as mentioned, the evolutionary journalist looks forward at the unfolding, new light coming from the story. And since the world is re-created anew at every moment, so too these new developments cannot possibility be planned in advance (for they were not yet created).
Whereas the challenge for an investigative journalist is to justify the original claim or thought, the explanatory journalist holds tight to that sense of continual re-creation, lest their entries appear like Wikipedia pages.
Taking Part in the Story
There is one great advantage to explanatory journalism over investigative. Whereas the public mainly sees the results of an investigative journalist after the book or article is published, since explanatory journalism is an ever-unfolding process, the public can also share in the excitement as each new layer gets added to the story. But each approach faces its own challenges.
For the explanatory journalist, the challenge is to present each card or movie still that best tells one greater story — one book-length meditation.
For the investigative journalist, the challenge is to see past the present book, to the next hypothesis or idea waiting to be written about. This is a challenge because the reporting, even the predictions, all derive from facts and figures from the past. But instead of some historical rendering of an event from the past, the investigative journalist still feels an urgency for the present (e.g., to predict the result of some future sporting event or election).
Two Companions that Never Separate
Ezra praised Nate’s FiveThirtyEight for fact checking an article. But for Ezra, the facts are always developing. The explanation continues.
Just as chochmah and binah are a pair, it is interesting to note that the revamped version of FiveThirtyEight and Vox were also announced within days of each other.
Ezra the Explainer
One of the great explainers of the Jewish people was another Ezra, Ezra the Scribe. Upon returning from Babylonian exile, the ingathered exiles led by Ezra the Scribe and Nehemiah gathered together in Jerusalem and read from the Torah.
Ezra and Nehemiah related to the people (who were mostly simple folk) laws of the holidays of the month of Tishrei – explaining these complex laws in simple-to-understand language.
This then is our imagery. While the Torah that Ezra the Scribe read from didn’t change, what does change in each generation is how you explain it.
Explanatory journalism is thousands of years old, just that today we have Vox.com and another Ezra, whereas in the past we had the public square and Ezra the Scribe.