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October 4, 2005

the "inverted pyramid" and other barriers to comprehension

I worked yesterday with a small group of undergrads who wanted me to help them follow current events. I asked them to read the lead article in the New York Times, because I thought it exemplified certain journalistic conventions that make it difficult for novices to understand the news.

The lead story was entitled "Macabre Clues Advance Inquiry in Bali Attacks." It began with the gruesome discovery of three heads widely separated from their feet and without extant torsos--evidence of suicide bombers. The story then mentioned the bombing in Bali that had occurred two days earlier. Next came a body count and a mention of the seven wounded Americans. The story gradually widened to include some discussion of the Indonesian group Jemaah Islamiyah, a splinter of which may be associated with Al Qaeda. After that reference came some discussion of the previous attacks in Indonesia in 2002, mixed with detailed descriptions of the wounded Americans. And finally the article explained that Bali is a Hindu island in predominantly Moslem Indonesia.

Using a version of the "inverted pyramid" style, the writers had begun with the latest facts and then widened to provide context, with the most general information saved for the very end. However, they never explained anything about Indonesia's history, politics, economy, or religious culture, or the structure and goals of Al Qaeda.

Daily newspapers are written for daily readers. I don't want an article to start with facts about Indonesian history and end with the latest from the Balinese forensic investigation. I read the news on Sunday and already know what happened then. But for a newcomer, the Times' lead story, like most of its coverage, is perplexing. The necessary factual base is either withheld until the very end or never provided at all; and the narrative logic of the story is completely shattered.

I asked the students whether the story belonged in the newspaper at all. Every day, about 153,000 human beings die. Thus it's not immediately obvious why we should all read about the 19 people murdered in Bali (or the 21 drowned on Sunday on Lake George). Publicity is just what Al Qaeda wants, and that's reason enough to question whether the bombing should be an international lead story.

By the time I had explained that it is difficult to read a standard breaking news article, and I had raised questions about whether the story was appropriate in the first place, I'm afraid I had driven these young people away from newspapers. I tried to explain why I read the Post and Times every day, but I'm afraid I wasn't too convincing (because I wasn't too convinced). I said that we each possess a general view of the world. We may see it as threatening, or divided between Islam and the West, or full of needless suffering, or stricken by Western imperialism, or united by a common humanity. Each significant news story helps us to shape, revise, and develop that worldview. In turn, our attitude guides our daily actions and choices. This is what I said, but none of it proves that the Times should have led with gruesome facts about the bodies of suicide bombers.

October 4, 2005 7:23 AM | category: press criticism | Comments


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