Here’s a thought: Maybe the reason search-driven sites like About.com and eHow.com have thrived in recent years, arguably at the expense of major news outlets, is that those major news outlets have failed their readers in explaining the nuts and bolts.
Too often, reporters don’t give enough background, either because they assume their readers already are familiar with the information, or they’re embarrassed to ask their sources to spell things out (read: they themselves are loath to admit they don’t really understand something. Don’t believe me? Get a news staffer drunk sometime and ask a few questions. I’ll leave publication names out of this discussion, but I know several culprits), they fear being accused of oversimplifying matters, or they’re afraid of the dreaded “this is news?!?” remarks they receive from readers, often in an open-to-the-public comments section. As tough as we may want to seem, journalists are rather thin-skinned creatures. I know this because I personally have bristled/wilted/reddened at the words of my readers in the past.
Your mother or aunt may not know what TARP is, or why it exists, and the cursory “explanatory” sentence or two you’ll find in most financial-news stories does little to help them. So, they Google it. Search for “what is TARP,” and the first hit is a Wikipedia article, followed by a congressman’s definition, followed by a random blog entry, followed by something on wiki.answers.com. A journalist would treat any of these sources with caution, but neither your mom nor your aunt is a journalist. Who is looking out for the readers here? And why did their local paper or other publication leave them lacking for knowledge in the first place?
Anyway, I think it’s time for journalism to return to its initial purpose: informing the public, rather than using a story as a forum for espousing personal beliefs or proving just how clever a writer is. Get the facts right, and don’t make readers fill in the blanks on their own. If you want to provide “color” after that, fine, but get the basics in there first. Frankly, I think it’s crappy and egotistical to assume that an audience is already familiar with any given back story. Just effing cough up the extra paragraph or two of history, and tighten the prose if needed for space reasons. This isn’t rocket science. Sheesh.
Rock and Roll Grammarian