All You Need to Know About "All You Need to Know"

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, July 22, 2014

On June 9, the data-journalism Web site FiveThirtyEight.com published its lead story previewing the World Cup. Its first two sentences read: “All you really need to know is this: The World Cup gets underway Thursday in São Paulo, and it’s really hard to beat Brazil in Brazil.”

Could “all you need to know” be the most insidious, reductive, and lame story formula currently conquering our reading life? Everywhere you turn there’s another purported ne plus ultra explainer purporting to tell us “absolutely everything we could possibly need to know” about some current event, some curiosity of history, some deep mystery of life on Earth. It’s in the Wall Street Journal (“all you need to know about the [Crimea referendum] vote”), Vox (often, like “Everything you need to know about Israel-Palestine“), Time (“all you need to know about sequestration”), CNN (“all you need to know about the Jerry Sandusky trial”), ABC (“everything you need to know about the Syrian civil war”), and, of course, BuzzFeed, which offers both world-historical contributions like “everything you need to know about the schoolgirl kidnapping in Nigeria” and  philosophic ones like “These 13 Questions Will Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Yourself.” (Subhed: “This is as accurate as it gets, people.” The questions directed me to visualize different aspects of a cube, and I learned that I’m guarded, bitter, and hate most people but simultaneously wish to raise 1,000 children. Time to accept my previously unrealized destiny as the head of a death cult.)

Explainers” and hubris have both been a part of journalism for a long time. “It isn’t journalism unless it comes packaged with a bunch of bragging,” Jack Shafer, the longtime media critic now at Reuters, told me, pointing me to the Chicago Tribune’s long-running billing of itself as “The World’s Greatest Newspaper.” (And, of course, there’s the New York Times’s “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” now repackaged for the web as “All the News That’s Fit to Click.”) But here’s why this journalism trend is worse: It combines both those things, and, stirred, together, they make something way worse than either one alone, like Cool Whip and dog poo. Read more ...