Not Exactly Rocket Science

i-78f8e21dfef23180012d57d93f2233ff-Inverted_pyramid.jpgNews 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But recently, several writers have argued that this model is outdated and needs to give way to a new system where context is king, Jason Fry argues that this “upside-down storytelling” is broken and while his piece primarily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.

Thoughts?  

More on journalism: 


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Comments

  1. #1 echoegami
    November 18, 2009

    Yes! This inverted pyramid writing style has been the bane of my news reading experiences. This is part of what I love about getting my news online – the ability to research stories when I have questions the reporting media fails to provide. Thanks for fighting the good fight!

  2. #2 Rich
    November 18, 2009

    I recently attended a communicating science workshop put on by NSF and AAAS. They preached inverted pyramid. Good to see some push-back from a top science writer. I think your success (and Carl Zimmer’s success) are precisely because you don’t use the conventional media motif.

  3. #3 Matt
    November 18, 2009

    I have to agree, the inverted pyramid does indeed suck. But I can see why it was created. “get the important stuff in early for the attention-deficit among us” I’m pretty sure that sentence sums up the reason as to why it was created. Most people don’t want to scan/read the whole article to get the news, so they put it at the beginning. That being said, I’d prefer it if they didn’t just throw it at you without background info first.

  4. #4 Lilian Nattel
    November 18, 2009

    You’re right on target and topic pages would be interesting. I detest the inverted pyramid style: it’s simplistic at best, but more often sensationalistic and fear mongering. I want to leave what I read knowing more than when I came in, and having some sense of context and substance. That’s why I read the NYRB for book reviews. The blogs I follow (like yours) have that feel to them, too.

  5. #5 Tim Ellis
    November 18, 2009

    Nailed it. I think an aggregator like HuffPo or Drudge could set the trend by posting latest news in eye-catching headlines which link through to living pages ala Wikipedia or your FOXP2 article.

    That said, there will always be a market for news media that make it easy to deceive, so you’ll likely never see the simplistic inverted pyramid format disappear entirely.

  6. #6 Ed Yong
    November 18, 2009

    Matt’s comment reminded me of another point that I forgot to make in the main text. People often say that the inverted pyramid works because readers switch off too easily and it’s best to feed them the important stuff early.

    Does it really work that way round? Could it be that by constantly feeding people a context-free distillation in the first few paragraphs, news writers are fuelling a mindset where it’s possible to switch off without reading much further? Could you argue that it’s the job of the skilled writer to keep readers hooked through a compelling narrative and sleight-of-prose? Methinks so.

    Is there any data on this at all? Because otherwise, the justification ends up sounding a lot like “We’ve always done it this way.”

  7. #7 Dan Conover
    November 18, 2009

    I’ll both agree with you and argue the contrary. Placing news in context requires using forms that break the inverted pyramid, but delivering new information (particularly in incremental bits) is often done best in the seemingly detested inverted pyramid.

    If we’re really honest, much of the information we pick up as we scan news sites comes from nothing more than a thumbnail image and a clickable headline. In many cases that’s enough for the level of priority we give a subject. A subhead or summary will satisfy the needs of a slightly smaller group. A smaller group than that will read the top graph or three, and only those who are deeply invested in a topic will read it through to conclusion. Given what I just described, if that’s not a form of inverted pyramid, I don’t know what is.

    But if we REALLY want to talk about putting news in context, then let’s talk about how we can tag the facts presented in in any prose formats to record the “aboutnness” of its subjects & objects. You can approach this one way in XML, another way in RDF, but by connecting facts in structured relationships, we create new opportunities.

    The happiest two years of my former career as a newspaper journalist were spent covering science, and the bulk of what I wrote would have been boring and incomprehensible if I’d approached it as inverted pyramid. Explaining an interesting scientific subject so that people will care about it and the originating scientist will feel properly represented isn’t a simple job, but it’s one of the best jobs you can have as a writer.

    Does that “make it interesting” approach apply to a Wikipedia article or a topic page? Of course not. Someone goes to a reference work because they already have an existing interest in improving their understanding. So you can skip the tease, drop the narrative, and simply explain the thing in a clear way.

    So there you have it. Three different roles (informing people of something new; explaining something that’s going in an interesting narrative; explaining the context and facts of a topic to people who are already interested), three different styles of writing.

    What connects them? Facts and aboutness. Once you code up the articles with the proper semantic context, you’ve wired a far more useful information ecosystem.

  8. #8 boakley59
    November 18, 2009

    In a media age is there really so little understanding of the dominant medium for so much of that age? The inverted pyramid is not a mysterious invention pinned to the feeble attention span of readers. It is a relic of the assembly-line model of newspaper production.

    To maximize wire service transmission and newsroom production efficiency, items were originally sent paragraph by paragraph right up until deadline or until space was filled. In order to get the most complete and meaningful story possible under mechanical demands, stories were made top-heavy. An intricately crafted story that was too long for its space or too late for deadline could not efficiently be squeezed in without destroying the art or the meaning.

    With the advent of better technology, some of these time and space constraints are eased, and the inherent clumsiness of the inverted pyramid is no longer so useful. It is good for doing things fast in a high-pressure environment. It is an approach focused on the machinery, not the message.

    It is much more suited to reporting on the fire down the street than on the latest finding in genetics.

  9. #9 boakley59
    November 18, 2009

    To echo the OP and Dan @7, solutions:

    The inverted pyramid “works” for news that’s happening now, before anyone has had time to contextualize. If the planes are heading for the towers and we don’t know why, but people have to know that it’s happening, tell ‘em what you know as fast as you can.

    For news that’s an incremental development of something we’ve been watching for a while, the Wikipedia approach works.

    To show love of a topic or spark interest in an important issue, a well-crafted narrative that provides a human connection.

    The better the reporting, the more the news should tell you what kind of story it is.

  10. #10 echoegami
    November 18, 2009

    @ boakley
    “The better the reporting..” being the operative notion in your response. But that’s just it, part of the problem is there’s precious little better reporting to be had.

  11. #11 John Timmer
    November 18, 2009

    We tend to do something like an inverted pyramid, but with an entirely different function – it’s supposed to act in the same way as an abstract of a research paper, and help the reader decide whether the full story is worth their time. This doesn’t necessarily involve stripping out the context or dumping all the key facts there. In most cases, providing a bit of context is essential, and we often try to leave out just enough details so that the reader is left wanting to read the larger piece.

    Technically, i guess that’s not the full inverted pyramid, but it may certainly look like one.

  12. #12 Khalil A.
    November 19, 2009

    To some extent, I think it is the writer’s job to be able to get the reader hooked to the piece he’s written. However, it is definitely true that attention spans have diminished and people switch off all too easily. People don’t do much reading anymore and when they read the paper, they’ll either scan through it or read the beginning – grab the stuff they don’t know – and stop once they reach the things they know. In the latter way, the inverted pyramid system works. Also, the longer the article, the lesser the number of layman readers. So the inverted pyramid works again as even those readers who aren’t particularly interested enough to read the whole thing actually do get some of the things that matter in the beginning. Without the inverted pyramid, some a lot of things may just be missed out by people.

  13. #13 Virginia
    November 20, 2009

    So much of what we see reported now is spin or counter spin. There never seems to be time to dig beneath it to the truth or to expose the facts. To me, that is ample reason for the “context needed to make sense of it all” to be included.

  14. #14 Arjun
    November 24, 2009

    Re: John Timmer

    I agree that abstracts and titles function something like the inverted pyramid for scientific literature, by necessity they give away the punchline. I really like the idea of news stories having abstracts. Maybe that’s just because I read too many abstracts and too few papers.

    In a way a lot of link based blogs work like that. They’re short comments on a story with a link to a longer original.

  15. #15 Pierce R. Butler
    November 25, 2009

    Haven’t you just rediscovered the difference between writing for newspapers and for magazines?

  16. #16 Carey Rowland
    December 5, 2009

    1.) I think you’re onto something here.
    2.) Boakley59′s three-pointed solution above is the best balance for covering all the bases. Let the writer’s intent, combined with the known readership of any particular source determine which of the three (inverted pyramid, incremental, or narrative)is appropriate. There is a definite place for each one online.
    3. Since I am a novelist, I relate to the narrative approach. While researching my recent novel, Glass Chimera, I came to appreciate all three, depending on the particular type of research I was doing at any moment.
    For instance, a narrative approach help me greatly in understanding Watson/Crick’s discovery of the DNA molecule structure. Reading about their exchange (or was it competition?) with Linus Pauling in the early 50s was richly informative. Watson’s somewhat out on a limb imaginative approach seemed to have made the difference. But Watson’s imagination for the double helix had a thin basis of lab data: he had viewed the enigmatic photos taken by Rosalind Franklin, who apparently could not interpret the results of her own work. But Watson could; he figured out that the damn thing was double helix.
    Another adventure that came to me via scientific narrative was the exchange (or was it competition?) between Priestley and Lavoisier as they were moving toward a breakthrogh on the discovery of oxygen. Fascinating stuff. But then, hey, the peasants got a little overzealous in their republican zeitgeist and guillotined Lavoisier’s head off. So much for the life work of one of the world’s greatest scientists.
    4.) Anyway, as you can see, I favor the narrative approach, and advocate its use wherever possible. If the ADDs don’t get into it, hey, its my problem not theirs.
    5.) Nice blog, Ed. I’m signing up.

  17. #17 gillt
    December 8, 2009

    Defined as such I can’t think of an example of science journalism (real or imagined) which would benefit from the inverted pyramid.

    However, even in most narrative styles the obligatory “nut graph” can still be found front and center.