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Sainati: The problem with Vox’s explanatory journalism

Leo Sainati, Columnist

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Much like many other liberal college students, one of my main sources of news is Vox. Vox was created in 2014 by Melissa Bell, Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein. In a 2014 article in The Verge, Klein said they co-founded Vox not only to create a vanguard for digital media, but also to fundamentally change the way news is consumed. Vox’s popularity has quickly grown since, and its explainer videos are a large success. Vox’s central function is to provide information that’s easily accessible and simply explained — its mission statement is “Vox explains the news.” This form of media presentation has been labeled as explanatory journalism, described by the Brookings Institution as “a counterweight to the breaking news, in-the-moment type of journalism that offers readers speed over nuance.” While explanatory journalism has merits in its accessibility and simplicity, its brevity promotes a singular news narrative that can reinforce one’s intolerance of opposing viewpoints.

Explanatory journalism can be a useful tool to convey important information in today’s increasingly abbreviated and simplified world of communication. Many people seem to prefer quick, simple summaries of the news. I, for one, have watched many Vox videos looking to receive quick explanations of relevant topics in the news — from the Syrian civil war to Obamacare. Yet explanatory journalism is also tremendously powerful, as its format lends itself to be taken as an absolute truth. Vox’s explainer videos are predicated on the assumption that the narrative they portray is the universally accepted one.

In a 2014 interview with The New York Times, Bell acknowledged that Vox initially sought to create a Wikipedia-esque platform for consuming information, saying, “It would be like a wiki page written by one person with a little attitude.” Except Vox isn’t Wikipedia in the slightest; Wikipedia is often regarded with more trepidation. Readers may see Vox as a reputable news source and thus give it more implicit trust. News sources like The New York Times and the Washington Post provide descriptive information in news articles, separate from opinion columns that are regarded as such. Just like this column should only be taken as my opinion about Vox, these publications make the distinction clear that the information they present is just a single interpretation. Vox’s explanatory journalism is more often than not regarded as unconditional fact. But, as historiographers often claim, narratives are subjective based on the narrator’s selection of information.

Vox’s popularity is accompanied by the concurrent rise of social media as a source of information. A Pew Research Center survey found that 38 percent of Americans primarily get their news online. That number climbs to 50 percent among those aged 18 to 29. And, according to Pew, millennials strongly lean liberal, with 57 percent identifying as Democrats or leaning Democrat. These demographic concentrations create echo chambers that feed off certain media narratives and ignore opposing ones, leading to close-mindedness.

We need to find ways to break out of this chamber. Too often, we seek explanations that fit our preconceived ideas of truth, reinforcing our confirmation bias. Explanatory journalism like Vox can be very useful, but needs to be regarded as a jumping-off point for understanding concepts and further dialogue. Vox too can acknowledge the responsibility it holds by presenting all sides to the narrative.

Leo Sainati is a SESP freshman. He can be contacted at leosainati2021@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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