Breaking the inverted pyramid - placing news in context

Not Exactly Rocket Science
By Ed Yong
Nov 18, 2009 8:30 PMNov 5, 2019 12:11 AM


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News journalism relies on a tried-and-tested model of inverted storytelling. Contrary to the introduction-middle-end style of writing that pervades school essays and scientific papers, most news stories shove all the key facts into the first paragraphs, leaving the rest of the prose to present background, details and other paraphernalia in descending order of importance. The idea behind this inverted pyramid is that a story can be shortened by whatever degree without losing what are presumed to be the key facts.

But recently, several writers have argued that this model is outdated and needs to give way to a new system where context is king, Jason Fry argues that this "upside-down storytelling" is broken and while his piece primarily deals with sports reporting, his arguments equally apply to other areas.

"Arrive at the latest newspaper story about, say, the health-care debate and you'll be told what's new at the top, then given various snippets of background that you're supposed to use to orient yourself. Which is serviceable if you've been following the story (though in that case you'll know the background and stop reading), but if you're new you'll be utterly lost."

Fry cites an excellent article by Matt Thompson at Nieman Reports, which compares the reading of modern news to "requiring a decoder ring, attainable only through years of reading news stories and looking for patterns, accumulating knowledge". Both writers make excellent points that are especially problematic for bigger stories, where rolling coverage drives audiences deeper into the latest minutiae and further away from the context needed to make sense of it all. The problem isn't limited to old media - blogs often send readers on interminable trails of links and archived posts to the start of a debate or topic.

These issues are highly relevant to science journalism. Here, context is vital for placing new findings against the body of research that inspires, supports or contradicts it. It shows you the giant shoulders that each new discovery stands upon.

Take the widely reported news about FOXP2, the so-called "language gene" last week. The human version of FOXP2 encodes a protein that's just two amino acids away from its chimp counterpart. FOXP2 is an executive gene that controls the activity of many others; a new study in Nature showed that the two changes that separate the human and chimp proteins give FOXP2 control over a different network of minions. This could have been an important step in the evolution of human speech.

Cue the headlines saying that the human speech gene had been found and that one gene prevents chimps from talking. One site even claimed that one gene tweak could make chimps talk. But human speech is a complicated business, involving radical changes to both our brains and our anatomy. FOXP2 may have been an important driver of these changes but the odds of there being a single language gene are about as high as there being a gene for penning fatuous headlines or writing in an inverted-pyramid style. And experiments in mice, birds and even bats have suggested that if it's a gene for anything, it's for learning coordinated movements.

When I saw the press copy of the paper, I knew that it was going to be big and that I wanted to cover it. But I wanted to try something different. Last year, I wrote a long feature for New Scientist about the FOXP2 story, from the gene's discovery to the erosion of its "language gene" moniker. Instead of covering the paper fresh, I decided to re-edit the feature, incorporating the new discoveries (and others that had come out in the last year) into the narrative I'd already crafted. The result is a living story, an up-to-date version of the FOXP2 tale, kitted out in this season's colours. The new stuff is there, but you hopefully get the nuances that are necessary to appreciate their significance. I'm pleased with the result and I want to do more.

I've touched on the idea of living stories in my write-ups of the World Conference of Science Journalists. There Krishna Bharat, founder of Google News, cited the Wikipedia page on swine flu as an example of a "timeless resource", constantly updated as statistics changed and discoveries were revealed. The page provided a valuable insight into a rapidly developing topic without simply setting new statistics adrift in a barren and featureless sea.

Fry and Thompson also cite Wikipedia as an example of how it should be done, and they quote an interview with co-founder Jimmy Wales, who notes that the online encyclopaedia is now a major attraction for news-hungry readers. On Wikipedia, the latest goings-on are added, but they're never allowed to ride shotgun at the expense of context. Clearly, something about the model is working, and "topic pages" are an emerging trend in the world of online news. The New York Times has introduced them. New Scientist has them. The Associated Press are following suit.

That's not to say that news pieces as we know them are journalistic dinosaurs. After all, people go to Wikipedia for summaries of newsworthy topics after finding out about them through more traditional channels. I doubt that many use the site as their primary news source. At a population level, a mix of approaches seems best - reporting of news alongside living resources that place them within a broader landscape.

This is especially needed when it comes to health-related stories, where new studies about Risk X and Disease Y must be weighed up against others of their ilk. Currently, this is a rarity - the focus on new news paints a picture of rapidly seesawing consensus, when the reality is more like a feather causing a weighted scale to teeter.

On an individual level, writers can also do more within the bounds of a single story, especially in the different environment offered by online media. Some selection pressures are the same - having important keywords in opening paragraphs pleases search engines and editorial conventions alike. But others are more relaxed - the inverted pyramid style may have been essential in a print environment where limited column space could hack a long piece to mere paragraphs but such unnecessary constrictions are irrelevant online. Here, pieces can find room to breathe, and Z-list elements like details and background can find their rightful place at a story's heart.

This is the approach that I try for in this blog, making news stories read more like mini-features. They're less inverted-pyramid and more factual oblongs. I try to get the important stuff in early for the attention-deficit among us, but there's no rush. I try to get a narrative in there without resorting to a straightforward school-essay structure. I hope it works, and I'm happy to take feedback. Meanwhile, I'm also considering adding topic pages for the pet issues that I find myself returning to time and again - horizontal gene transfer, embodied cognition, animal cooperation, transitional fossils... you know, the good stuff.


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