From the newsroom
Among the first terms you’ll get to hear in journalism school is the ‘inverted pyramid’. Simply put, it’s about conveying the most important facts of a story up front. Most news stories are structured to fit the inverted pyramid, but this is not an absolute rule. It’s just the most efficient one.
Newsworthy information on top…
The inverted pyramid gets its name from the way news can be communicated to a large audience with minimum effort: start with the general and move to the specific. Over time, this has proved to be the most concise way of telling a news story.
Imagine you’re a reporter on the field and you’re having to report an important event, such as a train accident. When you have to communicate this incident, you have to focus on the issues that people will be concerned with: What really happened? Where and When did this happen? How did this happen? Why? Who was responsible and who were the people affected?
In other words, the inverted pyramid deals with the 5 W’s and 1 H of any news-worthy event. Having attempted to convey the most important facts of the event, the reporter elaborates on them, and eventually moves on to more specific details. While this sounds simple, it is difficult to execute on the field because of the avalanche of information that one has to process. So sift through the unnecessary bits to zero in on the most relevant and the most important.
Sage advice from a journalism teacher
To avoid being weighed down by a mountain of information, you could follow this piece of advice I got from my journalism teacher: imagine you are conveying the news to a friend over the phone. Without being conscious of it, you would roughly adopt the inverted pyramid style of relaying the news.
This article on a recent train accident is a case in point.
Considering the above example of the train mishap, one would have to deal with several sources of information: the official (the railway company/ government); eyewitnesses; residents around the site; victims, and families of victims. The reporter is expected to gather as much relevant information as possible from all these sources and write a story (within a deadline and word limit) that is factually accurate and addresses questions that readers are likely to raise.
The first questions that arise would be the name of the train and the site of the mishap; the number of casualties; and how the accident itself happened. To avoid reporting inaccurate figures, it is best to quote official sources, but if you suspect that the officials are underplaying facts, mention that too. This style can be adopted for writing on various news events as it gives you the most relevant information first and then goes into details.
How it all began
The inverted pyramid evolved from the days when reporters had to file their stories by telegraph – since the medium was expensive and time-consuming, they had to relay the most important facts early on, so that, in the worst-case situation, their newspapers would not miss reporting the event. It is still useful to think of oneself as such a reporter, since it makes it easier to sift information. If you had to choose from a mountain of facts, which ones would you choose?
A good resource on the origins of inverted pyramid is a piece by Chip Scanlan from the Poynter Institute of Media Studies.
Not all events a reporter covers, however, might be as news-worthy as a train accident. It’s far more common to run into mundane events: press conferences by politicians, for instance; or the inauguration of a store by a celebrity.
It’s easy to dish out routine copy for such assignments, and the reporter may forget the newsworthiness of such events. In such cases, the reporter must go beyond what he is told; he must seek news where it appears there is none. Even when it appears that a press conference is long and boring, a good writer must keep his antennae up to pick up any interesting facts. Blogger Stephanie Wei in her golf blog Wei Under Par talks about the odds to win favourite in the recent US open. Using the US open as the main news event, she talks of favourites, winning margins and low rounds in her post – so while being newsworthy by virtue of it being an ongoing event, it is also a feature on a different aspect of the sport.
Create a simple inverted pyramid
While sitting down to write an article, a blog or a report, you might be stumped by several facts flitting through your mind. The best remedy is to ask yourself: ‘what’s the news?’ If you can satisfactorily answer that with your first paragraph, you have solved half the problem.
Having stated the most important facts, one moves to the ‘body’ of the story, where you detail the course of events. There are no rules for how this is done:start with the most important aspects and go on to the lesser important ones. Use quotes – of victims, officials and eyewitnesses — to strengthen the body of the story. The last part of the inverted pyramid – the ‘tail’ – consists of any additional input you can offer.
It is important to remember that the inverted pyramid is a loose structure – there is no strict definition of what comprises the lead, the body or the tail, but there are general guidelines that are followed to ensure the piece you have written, flows well. A good story builds on the foundation provided by the lead and becomes a wholesome read. Never leave important questions unanswered.
One size does not fit all
A story, even if it sticks to the inverted pyramid form, might not necessarily capture the attention of readers. The reporter must ask himself if the inverted pyramid is justified for every story he writes; he must challenge himself to think beyond this structure. Broadly speaking, the inverted pyramid works best for important news stories, and even then, there is scope to occasionally defy the form. A news story can also be told in a feature form – because in the era of instant updates, the bare bones of the story might already be known to the public before your story makes it to the news pages.
The inverted pyramid is therefore to be seen as a useful rather than an absolute template for every story.
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