Screw the Inverted Pyramid
By Tim Knight
This is the third instalment in Tim Knight’s series for The Journalist on the craft of broadcast journalism. His first two were The Business of Social Justice and How to Interview.
“I watched the Morning News, the Noon News and the Late-Night News. I saw the Local News, the National News and the World News. I watched News Brief, News Break, News Update, News Close-Up, News Wrap-Up, News Highlights, News Analysis and News Review. Why don’t I know what’s going on?”
The answer to Cathy’s question is two words.
The inverted pyramid has done even more harm to broadcast journalism than the invention of the news conference. Which is saying a lot.
They still teach it in journalism schools — in spite of all the evidence that it simply doesn’t work for broadcasting.
The inverted pyramid takes perfectly good stories and mutilates them.
It dictates that the story:
- Starts at the end — the climax — thus giving the result, the whole point of it, away at the very beginning. So there’s no surprise, no tension, no drama left to unfold and intrigue. We know the butler did it right from the start.
- Sums up the entire piece in three or four paragraphs at the beginning, then starts again with added detail in no particular order until there’s nothing left to say or the allotted time is up.
- Buries the context somewhere in the body of the tale. (The context, of course, explains what on earth it’s all going to be about and why a viewer or listener should care.)
Here’s the result:
The inverted pyramid is the most difficult to follow of all possible story structures.
It’s cleverly designed to prevent the viewer from retaining information.
It forces the writer into ugly, artificial, often incomprehensible sentences.
The inverted pyramid is a newspaper invention.
It has nothing to do with broadcast storytelling.
And yet, even today, it defines the structure of most stories in most broadcast news bulletins most of the time.
You’d think it was invented for some clever journalistic reason.
Actually it was invented to save newspaper publishers lots of money.
Here’s how the inverted pyramid starts life.
One hundred and fifty years or so ago, The Daily Outrage sends reporter Fred Nurk off to some far-flung foreign assignment (Johannesburg, Minsk, Alice Springs, Timbuktu etc.) by stagecoach, boat, mule train. Whatever’s available.
Our Fred packs his whisky and cigars, some respectable suits, a variety of cravats, formal evening wear, and, when appropriate, a pith helmet and bush jacket along with a tasteful assortment of beads and mirrors, vital for cheating the natives. And cleft-sticks in case he needs to send his words by cleft-stick runner. (See Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop and Black Mischief.)
It takes a couple of weeks for Fred to get to his assignment. Once there, he does some research, then sits down to write backgrounders on various stories likely to come up. They have no beginnings. Only background information.
Fred sends them back to The Daily Outrage by the next stagecoach. Or boat. Or mule train. Or cleft-stick runner.
Whatever’s available. It’s a lot cheaper than using telegraph (or, later, telex) which costs as much as a penny a word, a lot of money in those days.
Fred’s backgrounders take another two weeks to get back to the paper. Once there, printers set them in type, leave room at the top for opening paragraphs still to come.
And everyone waits.
Comes some big event (war, pestilence, drought, scandal, elections, etc.), Fred writes his lead sentences, condensing the latest information into three or four pithy paragraphs (the top of the inverted pyramid) and sends them to the paper by very expensive telegraph or telex.
All they have to do back at The Daily Outrage is set the new sentences in type, maybe add some connecting words to link the latest information with the old backgrounder (“the situation had been deteriorating for a considerable time…” or the ever popular, all-purpose, “meanwhile …” ) and print.
A hundred and fifty or so years later, broadcast newsrooms still use the same cumbersome newspaper story structure invented so our long-dead foreign correspondent Fred Nurk could save his publisher considerable money.
A hundred and fifty years later, we broadcasters still start our stories with the latest event, the climax. We still hide the context somewhere in the body of the tale. We still report facts, in no particular order, until we run out of the allotted time.
But newspapers and broadcasting are entirely different media.
Newspapers are a factual medium.
Broadcasting is an emotional medium.
In fact, we broadcast journalists and those newspaper journalists are no more than distant cousins.
So why, in 2015, do most broadcast news stories ignore the ancient art of storytelling and start at the end?
Here are some rationalisations:
- Because that’s the way newspapers have always done it and broadcast journalism is based on newspaper practice, training and thinking.
But we’re not newspapers. In fact, we’re entirely different.
- Because if the reader is short of time or isn’t particularly interested in the subject, he or she can just read the first three sentences and know the main points of what’s happening before moving on to the next story
But our viewers and listeners can’t fast-forward live news bulletins until they find something that interests them.
- Because starting with the climax is the easiest, quickest way to cover an event.
Sadly, this is true.
- Because: “You gotta grab attention, give the viewer the best stuff at the beginning or you’ll lose her.”
But no good movie, sitcom, ballad, book, play, sermon or joke puts the climax (point of highest tension or drama when the solution is given) at the start.
It’s like starting Hamlet with the line: “Hamlet couldn’t make up his mind, so by the end of this play Hamlet, Gertrude, Claudius, and Laertes will all be dead”, then asking the audience to spend three breathless hours waiting to find out what happens and why.
- Good storytellers put the context, the housekeeping (who, what, when, where), at the beginning so the viewer knows the situation.
- Good storytellers deliberately build interest, tension and excitement as the story unfolds chronologically.
- Good storytellers keep the climax for the end, so the viewer or listener hangs in, postpones visits to the can or the fridge, and can’t leave until he or she finds out how it all turns out.
Here’s the shape of good storytelling:
Harvard University’s William Perry (Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years) explains:
“… truth is relative… the meaning of an event depends on the context in which that event occurs and on the framework that the knower uses to understand that event … knowledge is constructed, not given; contextual, not absolute, mutable, not fixed.”
I can’t say it too often. Newspapers and broadcasting are entirely different media.
Therefore, their journalists should use entirely different methods to serve these entirely different media.
- Broadcasting is its own, unique medium. With its own unique guides and rules.
- Broadcasting works on the emotional level, far more powerful, more human, deeper, basic and elemental than any written newspaper.
- Broadcasting is marvellously suited to the ancient, classic art of Storytelling.
- Broadcasting journalism is, in fact, the exact equivalent of the Storyteller gathering the tribe around the fire in the cave at the end of the day and passing on survival information disguised as stories.
The great Marshall McLuhan told us about it years ago.
McLuhan said that modern mass communications are turning the globe into a village, catapulting us back to the life of the tribe.
He went further. He claimed that down through the ages the means, the method, by which we communicate has determined our thoughts, our actions, our very lives.
Classic storytelling is by far the best method to do exactly that.
Once upon a time, long, long ago, Storytellers and their stories brought information and understanding to the people.
We don’t do that any more. Instead we just send out a bunch of facts and expect viewers and listeners to
understand, retain and make sense of them.
If we’re to survive, broadcast journalists have to learn to tell stories again.
So we can bring understanding again.
This column is adapted from Knight’s book, Storytelling and the Anima Factor, now in its second edition on Amazon and lulu.com
Next week Knight explains how third-rate actors and newspapermen set the standards for today’s broadcast writers and performers.