Digital Publishing

ProPublica Uses Plain Language to Make Stories More Accessible

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It’s nice when a newsroom experiment pays off in unexpected ways.

In Arizona, ProPublica teamed up with the Arizona Daily Star to sponsor a story by Amy Silverman that looked into why the state’s Division of Developmental Disabilities turned down thousands of people who sought assistance.

The investigative piece has all the heft and rigor you’d expect from a ProPublica deep dive. But what could have simply ended as a robust and impactful piece of journalism transformed into something of an experiment in story forms (20 separate urls in total, including Spanish translations and audio versions) in an attempt to reach the very people the story was about—men and women living and coping with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Silverman said the decision to experiment with story forms started with a storytelling event that featured the actual voices of those living with disabilities, done in an attempt to bring them into her story in a meaningful way. The event, run by Rebecca Monteleone, a professor of disability studies at the University of Toledo, opened Silverman’s mind to the possibility of taking additional steps beyond her reporting to make the story itself more accessible to the group she was covering.

That road eventually  led to Silverman’s lengthy and at times complicated story being translated into plain language, the first time ProPublica (or any other news outlet, as far as I can tell) created a plain language version of a story in an attempt to increase its accessibility for disabled readers.

Never heard of plain language writing before? Neither had I before stumbling across Silverman’s piece. Basically, it’s a writing style that makes difficult and complex ideas and information more accessible to people with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

Think about ProPublica itself, a nonprofit digital that has blossomed into a journalism heavyweight, winning six Pulitzer Prizes in 13 years, thanks to its hefty investigative journalism. Here’s how Monteleone described ProPublica in the plain language version of the editor’s note attached to the story: “This is a group of journalists who write stories. These stories make sure people and groups do what they say they will. We call this accountability journalism.”

Silverman admitted she’d only recently learned about plain language and initially wasn’t sure how she felt about her work being translated by another writer.

“As a journalist, I think we’re always sensitive to being told to dumb things down,” Silverman said. “I want to be able to believe that I can write about any kind of complex topic, and like a mama bird, chew it up and spit it back out for the general audience.”

Silverman said she was won over after discussing the project with Monteleone, who explained the difference between dumbing something down and putting it into plain language. Once the story was fully written and edited (including a reading by ProPublica’s lawyers), Silverman sent the story to Monteleone to translate.

Using a Google Doc, there was some back and forth. For instance, there were times when the plain language version made an absolute statement, when Silverman said the situation really required nuance. But she said Monteleone has great suggestions for rearranging the mainbar so it focused on one individual rather than pulling away from her and returning, as the original story did.

“I'm lucky that I'm at the point in my career where my ego can handle someone saying I preferred the plain language version,” Silverman joked.

Christian Miller, a senior editor at ProPublica who worked with Silverman on the story, said the easiest way for journalists to think of plain language is remove all the unnecessary jargon and pare down a story to its most essential elements in more of a direct subject-verb-object way.

For example, lists are turned into bulleted items, unnecessary details are cut back, descriptions of organizations and agencies are very direct and descriptive, and paragraphs and sentences are shortened to focus on one main idea (the Division of Developmental Disabilities is simply described as “place that helps people” with disabilities in Arizona).

“(Reporters) have lots of clauses and pack as much information as they can into one paragraph as part of the legacy of print journalism, when you had to write a story as tightly as possible to fit it in a 12 inch column space in a newspaper,” Miller said.

Miller said the plain language version of Silverman’s story worked great, but it wouldn’t be appropriate for every story ProPublica published. For instance, it would be much harder to have a plain language version of an investigative piece about a potentially litigious individual who wasn’t a public figure, where the direct style could be read as misinterpreting certain facts.

“In this situation, there’s nobody from the Arizona Division of Developmental Disabilities that’s going to be suing us or threatening to sue us. We can do this,” Miller said. “But doing an explanatory story about a government official or agency, it’s easier to do.”

One passage that struck a chord with Miller and a number of journalists online was the plain language version of an editor’s note, where Monteleone pared down a comment he made about “preconceived notions” Silverman brought with her to the story because her daughter, Sophie, has Down syndrome.

Here’s how the editor’s note, written by Miller and Daily Star editor Jill Jorden Spitz, read in the plain language version: “We started writing this story because Amy cares about it. She cares because it affects her family. We don’t think caring makes the story less fair. We think caring makes it better.”

“Sometimes the plain language was better than the original language,” Miller said. “I think there’s a direct, emotive collection to that particular passage….It’s almost poetic because you’re repeating the ‘caring’ over and over again. I don’t know how to describe it, but there is this connection that happened.”

Miller said the plain language version of the story has been so popular with his colleagues at ProPublica that he’s planning on inviting Monteleone in to teach a session to writers and editors. Not only could it help ProPublica create more accessible journalism moving forward, but Miller thinks it can help everyone—including himself—be a better writer.

“It's just a very simple and direct way of getting at problems,” Miller said. “Having to write in plain language makes you write better because you have to really boil things down to their essence, which is what journalists are supposed to do.

Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor and writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach him at robtornoe@gmail.com.

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