Journalism 101

September 17, 2008 | 2 Comments

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By: Dennis Bates

Back in the day when they still taught journalists traditionally, we learned that a good news article was written in an inverted pyramid style. That means the most important parts of the story come first, then the next most important, and so forth until the last paragraph which was the least important. That last paragraph was the tip of the upside down pyramid, thus the name.


The first paragraph was supposed to tell the entire story in thirty words or less and it was called the lead paragraph. A good lead paragraph answered the following questions: who, what, why, where, when and how.


There were several good reasons for the style. Most importantly, have you ever read the first paragraph of a sports story and learned about the overflow crowd, the muddy field or the annual rivalry for paragraph after paragraph, only to be totally frustrated? I have. The most important fact in the first paragraph, especially for those who haven’t attended the game is THE SCORE. Who won? Yet, I have seen countless stories that don’t give you that crucial piece of information until the third or fourth paragraph, or even lower. A reader should never, ever have to hunt through a story to find out who won. That is the story. Everything else is just detail.


I have found through the years that knowing how to answer the five W’s and an H for a lead paragraph has been a transferrable skill. It helps me in my writing and in my thinking. There are exceptions to the technique, of course, but basically life itself makes a lot more sense if you can answer those six questions in any given situation.


For example, let’s take the thing we call religion.


Who? The who in religion has to be God. Like the score in a sports story, I shouldn’t have to hunt for God in religion. He should jump out at me in the very first or second sentence. He should be clear and easy to find.


What? God should be defined. What are his powers? You can’t have a religion without knowing whether your God is omniscient and all present, like the God of the Bible, or if he is some super human force that has flaws like the gods of Greek and Roman mythology or if God is simply a good feeling you get when you commune with nature on a beautiful summer day.


Why? This question goes to purpose. What is God’s purpose for being? Is he there to trip us up and punish us? Is his purpose to manipulate us like playing pieces in a universal game of Chutes and Ladders? Is he there so we remember our ancestors and therefore carry on the past? Is he there to make us feel guilty, or is he there to love because more than anything else that’s what we need, and he knows that?


Where? Is God hiding just around the corner, taking a break, or a permanent resident of Club Med? Where can we find him, or can we? Does God have a home? If he doesn’t, then we can and should question whether he really exists at all. The where of God is a crucial question that we must be able to answer. If I tell you about my God and you ask me, “Where is he?”, I had better be able to show you.


When? When does or did God exist? Most religions fail here. If God only existed in the past or only makes a brief guest appearance sometime in the distant future, how can that be very useful to us? In fact, how can that be God at all?


How? How can we tell what we believe in is God, and more importantly, how can we know him as God?


Only one religion can answer these questions satisfactorily.


Who? The creator and maker of all things, the Word, the thing without which there would be no other thing.


What? Omnipresent, Omnipotent, All powerful. Nothing else comes close.


Why? Because we are His; it is He that made us and He loves us.


Where? Everywhere. Here on earth, in the depths of hell and in the heights of heaven. There is no place where God isn’t.


When? Yesterday, today and tomorrow. God always was, is now and forever shall be.


How? Through belief in his one and only Son, Jesus Christ. If we know Him, we know God.


There is your lead paragraph for real religion; it’s called Christianity.



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  1. Robert Parrish says: September 17, 2008

    Well said! As a journalism student turned advertising and marketing writer, I’m impressed with your clarity. Thank you!

  2. Dennis says: September 17, 2008

    Thank you, Robert. It’s always good to know somebody’s out there.



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