Archived Course

Cursos con instructor

Explain this! How explanatory journalism informs and engages audiences

January 16-February 12, 2023

Welcome to the Knight Center's new MOOC, "Explain this! How explanatory journalism informs and engages audiences," organized by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, with support from the Knight Foundation. During this four-week massive open online course, which will be held from January 16-February 12, 2023, students will learn techniques and formats for adding background and context to the news to help readers make sense of the daily outpouring of news, as well as to fight misinformation.

Watch the video below and read on for more details, including instructions on how to register.


Elija entre las siguientes opciones

Registering in the platform is easy. Please follow these steps:

  1. Create an account in the Journalism Courses system. Even if you’ve taken a course with us before, you may need to create a new account. Check to see if your previous username and password work before creating a new account.
  2. Wait for a confirmation in your email indicating that your account has been created. If you do not receive this, please check your spam folder.
  3. Log into the platform, scroll down until you see the course listings, and click on the "Explain This! How explanatory journalism informs and engages audiences" course.
  4. A button will appear. Click “Enroll” to enroll yourself in the course. You will be able to access the course from the “My Courses” menu at the top of the page.
  5. You will receive an email confirming your enrollment.

Please add the email addresses journalismcourses@austin.utexas.edu and filipa.rodrigues@utexas.edu  to your address book to ensure you receive emails about the course.

For the next four weeks, you will learn how to:

  • Spot which parts of a story might need more explanation
  • Find ways of adding context and background within breaking news stories without bogging them down
  • Write clearly about subjects you know in-depth and get up to speed on subjects you don’t
  • Choose subjects for enterprise projects
  • Break big topics into manageable projects
  • Turn explainers into “persistent content” that can fight misinformation

After completing this course, you will:

  • Identify the jargon or shorthand in stories that can confuse readers or turn them off
  • Address readers’ need for background or context clearly and concisely
  • Choose topics that call for more in-depth explanations
  • Develop a sense of when to give a “micro” account by adding more depth to a specific point or a “macro” perspective that puts the news in a broader context
  • Create content that is “evergreen” or easily updatable

Introduction Module - What is explanatory journalism?

Welcome! In the introductory module, you will get an overview of the course structure and meet John O’Neil, the instructor. John will provide an overview of the course, and he’ll begin to discuss how explanatory journalism is an increasingly important part of the work of every reporter and editor, no matter what they’re covering. You can also review the course’s introductory reading materials.

This module will cover:

  • What is explanatory journalism?
  • What “everybody knows,” leaving readers “kind of” informed, and misinformation.
  • What background, context and analysis are and what they can do
  • The history of explanatory journalism and its role in the newsroom business model

Guest speakers

  • Margaret Sullivan, professor of journalism at Duke University, former media columnist at The Washington Post and public editor of The New York Times
  • John Wihbey, associate professor of media innovation and technology at Northeastern University

Module 1: What needs explaining? What are our tools?

(January 16 – January 22, 2023)

Readers today have access to more news and information than ever before. But with that torrent of content comes new challenges for readers in understanding the news – and for journalists, an ever-greater emphasis on making the news understandable. Explanatory journalism comes in a wide range of forms and formats, from brief asides in breaking news stories to multi-part standalone enterprise series, and in podcasts, videos and graphic presentations, as well as stories. Here we’ll start to look at what readers need and the tools you can employ for meeting them.

This module will cover:

  • Two traps: familiarity and expertise.
  • Why there’s no such thing as a dumb question – from you or your readers
  • How to see what’s missing in a story
  • Why what needs to be said depends on who’s listening – understanding your audience
  • The range of formats

Guest speakers

  • S. Mitra Kalita, co-founder of URL Media and Epicenter-NYC, former senior vice president at CNN Digital
  • Juliana Barbassa, deputy books editor and former Latin America editor, NY Times, author of “Dancing With the Devil in the City of God”

Module 2: What needs explaining? What are our tools?

(January 23 – January 29, 2023)

Readers today have access to more news and information than ever before. But with that torrent of content comes new challenges for readers in understanding the news – and for journalists, an ever-greater emphasis on making the news understandable. Explanatory journalism comes in a wide range of forms and formats, from brief asides in breaking news stories to multi-part standalone enterprise series, and in podcasts, videos and graphic presentations, as well as stories. Here we’ll start to look at what readers need and the tools you can employ for meeting them.

This module will cover:

  • Spotting and filling in holes within articles
  • Getting at the “nub” – the thing that’s hard to explain
  • Explanations on deadline
  • The different challenges of explaining something you know well vs. things you don’t know much about

Guest speakers

  • Kelsey Butler, equality reporter and former credits market reporter, Bloomberg News
  • Lisa Beyer, QuickTake editor at Bloomberg News, former foreign editor, and Jerusalem correspondent, Time Magazine
  • Ken Chang, science writer, The New York Times

Module 3: Sidebars and standalones

(January 30 - February 5, 2023)

A lot of topics are hard to explain fully within a breaking news story. Here’s where we’ll look at the range of tools and formats at your disposal. We’ll talk about explaining a specific aspect of the news in depth or putting the news in a broader context, how to gather the material you need, create a structure that’s easy for readers to follow – and avoid “hand waving.” Explainers can and should convey a range of points of view, and can be an important tool in fighting misinformation. Done right, explainers can also be reusable – what can be called persistent content – and can save you and your colleagues work in the future.

This module will cover:

  • Choosing between formats such as Q&A’s, buzzwords, scorecards, listicles, plus podcasts and video
  • Micro vs macro – digging in on one point or broadening the context
  • Creating an outline and filling in the blanks
  • Capturing a debate
  • Fighting misinformation
  • How to create and reuse evergreen or persistent content

Guest speakers

  • Mary Childs, co-host, NPR’s Planet Money, author of The Bond King, a biography of Bill Gross
  • Lisa Beyer, QuickTake editor at Bloomberg News, former foreign editor and Jerusalem correspondent, Time Magazine

Module 4: Longform and enterprise

(February 6 – February 12, 2023)

Not everything is a sidebar! Explanatory articles or series can stand on their own -- and can have tremendous impact. We’ll talk about how sometimes the most powerful pieces are those that convey to a broad audience the things that “everybody” knows – everybody who’s up to their ears in the subject, that is. Here’s where we’ll talk about narrative techniques and incorporating data and graphics. We’ll also discuss how social media can be used both as a reporting tool and to promote finished work to a broad readership.

This module will cover:

  • Choosing subjects – what needs deep explaining? Who are you explaining it to?
  • Structure and narrative technique
  • Researching a deep explanation
  • Incorporating data and graphics 
  • Making use of search and social media 

Guest speakers

  • Zach Mider, features writer at Bloomberg News and winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism
  • Yue Qiu, deputy managing editor for data journalism graphics, Bloomberg News (tentative)


John O’Neil is an editor with Bloomberg News in New York City. He joined Bloomberg in 2013 to help develop new formats for explanatory news there and has been a member of the QuickTake team ever since. QuickTakes draws on the expertise of Bloomberg’s 2,700 member newsroom to produce readable, authoritative pages offering background and context on topics ranging from volatility in global bond markets to Xi Jinping’s rise to power and debates over the regulation of cryptocurrencies. In addition to appearing on the Bloomberg Terminal and Bloomberg.com, QuickTakes are syndicated worldwide, are collected into print editions twice a year and are the basis for many Bloomberg News videos.

Before joining Bloomberg, John spent 24 years at The New York Times, where he was an editor on the metro, Washington, special sections and news desks before leading the development of Times Topics pages into an online current events encyclopedia. In addition to editing, he wrote over 800 bylined articles for the Times, primarily on health, science and education.

In 2004, his first-person essay about his son’s autism was the capstone of a series the paper nominated for a Pulitzer prize in explanatory journalism. In 2009, an album of original songs about autism for which he wrote the lyrics was released featuring performances by Jackson Browne, Dar Williams and Teddy Geiger, among others.

John graduated from Yale University with a degree in history in 1979; his first reporting was done for the Associated Press in Nigeria and Ghana. He lives in Brooklyn with his dog, Pablo, and has three sons, who live in Jersey City, Western Massachusetts and Washington, DC. He is currently working on a graphic novel about Niccolo Machiavelli.

Reporters, editors, students, aspiring journalists, teachers and scientists, historians or other area specialists – anyone hoping to reach a mass audience through legacy media, podcasts or videos.

This course only requires you to have access to an Internet connection and a web browser.

First of all, note that this is an asynchronous course. That means there are no live events scheduled at specific times. You can log in to the course and complete activities throughout the week at your own pace, at the times and on the days that are most convenient for you.

Despite its asynchronous nature, there are still structures in place for the duration of the course.

The material is organized into four weekly modules. Each module will be taught by John O’Neil and will cover a different topic through videos, presentations, readings and discussion forums. There will be a quiz each week to test the knowledge you've gained through the course materials. The weekly quizzes, and weekly participation in the discussion forums, are the basic requirements for earning a certificate of participation at the end of the course.

This course is very flexible, and if you are behind with the materials, you have the entire length of the course to complete them. We do recommend you complete each of the following before the end of each week so you don’t fall behind:

● Video lectures
● Readings and handouts/exercises
● Participation in the discussion forums
● Quizzes covering concepts from video lectures and/or readings

A certificate of completion is available for those who meet all of the course requirements, and pay online an administrative fee of $30 (thirty U.S. dollars), using a credit card.

There's no form to apply for the certificate of completion. At the end of the course, the Knight Center team will verify all students and all activities required to qualify for the certificate of completion.

After verifying that students have met the course requirements, the Knight Center will send a message to your email confirming that you have met the requirements and are eligible for the certificate. In this message, we'll also send you instructions on how to pay the administrative fee.

After paying the fee, it will take between three to five business days for you to receive instructions via the course platform's messaging system to download a PDF copy of your certificate. The certificate is only available in PDF format.

To be eligible for a certificate of completion, students must:

  • Listen to the weekly video classes and read the weekly readings
  • Complete weekly quizzes with a minimum score of 70%. (You can retake the quizzes as many times as needed. Only the highest score will be recorded.)
  • Create OR reply to at least one discussion forum each week.

The certificate of completion is not required in order to take the course; students can still take our free online course without purchasing the certificate. No formal course credit of any kind is associated with the certificate.

The certificate is awarded by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas to attest to the participation in the online course.