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Allvoices Writers’ Resources: Five Ws, one H are a must for informative reporting

Feb 11, 2013

It doesn’t take a media historian to recognize that the Internet has changed journalism in many ways, but that doesn’t mean journalistic rules and guidelines should be tossed just because technology has influenced the way the profession is practiced.

As any first-year journalism student can tell you, the five Ws and the H remain essential ingredients for writers who want to produce informative stories.

The five Ws refer to who, what, when, where and why, and the H refers to how. Writers may not always need to or be able to convey each of these important aspects in every story, but they serve as easy-to-remember helpers regarding what to look for when gathering information.

Because so many Allvoices writers rely on the reporting of other media outlets to recap the news in the process of sharing their original commentaries, analyses, or opinions, this Writers’ Resources report is tailored to scribes who get key get information for their reports from material published elsewhere on the Internet. The same basic principles apply, however, when gathering original information as a reporter

To share your opinions on President Obama’s State of the Union speech, for example, you would need to include some basic facts early in the story. If it helps, you can jot a note to yourself to help you remember what to include. It might look something like this:

Who: President Obama.

What: Topics the president covered when addressing a joint session of Congress in his State of the Union speech.

When: 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013.

Where: In the US Capitol building, Washington, D.C.

Why: Article II, Section 3 of the US Constitution. The “why” may not be relevant to your article on the State of the Union speech, but understanding why it is an annual event is helpful background information.

How: Not relevant to this particular example unless you decide to make quips about the president’s use of teleprompters.

Let’s say the president calls for higher taxes on the wealthy in his speech and that’s what you want to write about. Your first paragraph could easily include a lot of important information without becoming clunky or awkward:

President Obama called for higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans during his State of the Union speech to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night in Washington, saying it was “time for the most affluent among us to pay their fair share so the rest of us can have a fair shot at realizing the American dream.”

This is a hypothetical quote for instructional purposes, not an actual quote from the president, but it gets the point across. Notice that the opening sentence, or lede, covered four of the five Ws halfway before even getting to the president's quote. Obama is the who, the call for higher taxes is the what, Tuesday night is the when and Washington is the where. You also might mention at some point that the speech took place in the Capitol, or elaborate on his call for higher taxes on the wealthy, or mention how long the address was, but by including key elements at the outset, you’ve grounded the reader with solid facts and can go from there to make your own points.

The five Ws and the H are not necessarily limited to the event at hand. If, for example, you wanted to point out in your commentary or opinion that President Ronald Reagan had different views on taxes as a means of lending credence to your criticisms of Obama, you might quote from one of Reagan’s speeches. Suppose you came across this article from Human Events during your research and wanted to use the following Reagan quote: “There can be no moral justification of the progressive tax.”

The story informs you that Reagan was speaking to the Orange County Press Club on July 28, 1961, when he said those words. That much specificity probably would not be necessary to lend support to your point – but having key facts at your fingertips helps you lead the reader more clearly through your thoughts.

You would, of course, link to the Human Events report at some point. More about citing sources can be found in this Writers’ Resource report. The bottom line is that citing solid, undisputed facts can help you present your opinions and commentaries, and the five Ws and the H provide a well-established starting point in terms of ensuring you’ve included relevant facts in the process of sharing your unique perspective on a given story or issue.

This article is part of the official Allvoices Writers' Resources Series. Stay tuned for more online journalism tips and tricks from Punditty.

Additional Allvoices Writers’ Resources reports:

Getting quotes right crucial to quality reporting, Jan. 8, 2013

First references, titles and names, Dec. 5, 2012

How to handle excerpts, Nov. 30, 2012

Select Media guidelines help writers maintain high editorial standards, July 25, 2012

Ideas, topics and surfing the beat, May 31, 2012

When citing information from TV, specificity and accuracy are crucial, April 24, 2012

Better tags for better page views, Feb. 12, 2012

5 tips for American Pundit writers, Jan. 20, 2012

Commenting on other reports builds community, leads to additional interest in your work, Dec. 31, 2011

Linking to sources improves reliability of your reports, Nov. 30, 2011

Write better headlines, get more readers for your reports, Nov. 22, 2011

Sources and Resources:

Ronald Reagan’s warning on progressive taxes, Human Events, Dec. 5, 2012

Wikipedia entry on the State of the Union address

Additional sources and resources linked to in text.