The “5 W’s” of journalism are the building materials for web writing. Most journalists learned these fundamentals our first day in a newsroom or a journalism classroom. But we occasionally need reminding and refreshing.
These questions can guide your reporting as you interview, observe and research to gather the facts for your story. They can guide your writing, whether you are live-tweeting an event, writing a brief summary or a video script or crafting a long narrative. They can raise ethical issues to consider. They help you find links to add context or visual content to illustrate. They guide you to possible visual content for a post. I will address each of these possibilities for each of the fundamental questions:
Reporting. Accuracy and verification are the heart of good writing. Make sure you get the names spelled right. Ask a person to spell his or her name for you (even if it’s a common name), then spell it back and/or show what you wrote in the notebook. Get it in writing: from a business card, web bio or other source. If the written version doesn’t match what you have in your notes, resolve the conflict directly with the source. Who is more than a person’s name. Your research should uncover a person’s title and role in your story, the relationships, experience, perspective and motivation.
Writing. You need to identify key people early in most stories. If tweeting, see if the person is on Twitter and use her username. Link to a blog, biography or social media profile of the person. In a narrative, who becomes a character. You need more than the basic identification of the person. Reveal some motivation and help the reader get to know the person: aspirations, motivations, emotions, sense of humor, background.
Ethics. Who is the first of these journalism fundamentals, so you should be reluctant and demanding in agreeing to withhold a person’s identification. Seek documentation and confirmation from other sources, so you don’t have to base your story on unnamed sources. Use unnamed sources only for facts they know first-hand. Opinions, especially criticism of named people, count for nothing when people won’t stand behind their opinions. Learn whether a person is demanding confidentiality because she isn’t confident in the information she is giving you, because it’s just rumor or speculation.
Links: Who else has written about this person? Does he have his own website, with a biography and/or links to her work? How about a Wikipedia page? Does your website have a topic page on this person?
Visuals: The primary who of a story demands illustration with a photo, a video or both. Consider whether secondary who’s merit either or both as well.
Reporting. Much of your reporting will focus on learning what happened. Fill your notebook with the details you will need to tell the story. What can be actions such as a crime or a vote by a governing body or the electorate. What can be objects such as murder weapon, a miracle drug or an acoustic guitar. What can be creative works, such as a movie, song, concert or play you are reviewing. What is certainly the broadest of the 5 W’s.
Writing. Be specific, where details are relevant, in telling the what of your story. Writing coach Roy Peter Clark of Poynter encourages writers tor tell the name and breed of the dog, the brand of the beer. It’s not just a guitar, it’s a Taylor guitar. In a narrative, what is often the plot of your story, explaining what the characters did or what happened to them.
Ethics. If your story alleges wrongdoing, attribute the allegations to the authorities or documents that say what the person is accused of. Give the accused an opportunity to respond. What a woman is wearing is not important in a story unless you would tell what a man was wearing in the same situation.
Links. Some of the what’s of a story involve background or explanation that you can link to. If you are writing about a continuing story, your site might have a topic page, or you can link to the most recent story or an overview (or both). Maybe you link simply to a Wikipedia page or a vendor’s page providing more information about an item or product you mention.
Visuals. A video can show dramatically what happened. Or a simple photograph can illustrate to show the item you are writing about.
Reporting. You need to learn the order of events when doing a narrative. Almost every story involves some event in the past or future (or both). Be sure to check the date, and make sure the day of the week matches the actual date (you’d be amazed how often you’ll receive an announcement saying an event will be “Monday, Nov. 15,” when Nov. 15 falls on a Tuesday.
Writing. Sometimes you want to present events in chronological order. Sometimes you will need to flash backward or jump forward. Be clear about such shifts in time. In a narrative, when becomes part of the setting.
Ethics. In many stories, you need to learn when people knew key facts to tell the full story. If you’re covering breaking news, you may post initial stories that are timely but not yet fair. As you get a response from a person who was criticized or gather the facts for a more complete story, be sure to provide play that is fair over time.
Links. Provide context for your current story by linking to previous coverage of this topic or to related upcoming events.
Visuals. A timeline can provide an effective visual for continuing stories, particularly when you reach a milestone in the story. Dipity, Intersect and Memolane are tools for creating timelines of various types.
Reporting. Your research will include gathering information about various places: venues, hometowns, communities.
Writing. In a simple story, where might be a basic mention of a city, venue or address. In a narrative, though, setting can be a crucial element.
Ethics. Be sure to verify addresses and the spellings of venues, communities and other locations.
Links. You can link to a community or venue page if they are relevant to a story.
Visuals. Google maps make easy illustrations to embed in a story if where is an important element.
Reporting. Often why is the most important question to answer in your research. You need to pursue an explanation or try to understand a character’s motivation. Find the people or documents that can help you understand cause and effect.
Writing. Why can often make a good “nut graph,” the paragraph high in a story that helps the reader understand what is important about this story. In a narrative, why can become the theme or conflict of the story.
Ethics. Why is an important question to ask when a story is critical one. You need to be fair to people who are criticized in stories and give them a chance to explain and to respond to criticism.
Links. You can link to previous stories that provide context that helps people understand the why.
Visuals. A video interview with the central character in a story or with an expert in the topic can be an effective tool for answering why.
How gets lumped in with the 5 W’s as a fundamental question of journalism.
Reporting. Ask how at relevant points in interviews. Find experts to explain confusing or complex processes. An important question in most stories is how much? How much do tickets cost? How many people attended the event? How much will the performer be paid?
Writing. As with why, your writing will need to provide some how explanation. In a narrative, how could be the resolution to your conflict.
Ethics. One of journalism’s most important questions is How do you know that? The essence of verification is finding and evaluating sources. Ask the questions that will help you find the best sources with first-hand knowledge and strong documentation.
Links. Others may have provided solid how explanations you can link to.
Visuals. Graphics such as flow charts are helpful for explaining processes that answer the how. A video interview or demonstration, or a news video, also might explain.
Disclosure: As I noted in posts about my traffic records the past two months, I am getting considerable search traffic to a blog post about the 5 W’s of digital business, apparently from people looking for content about the 5 W’s. I wrote this for a workshop I will be presenting this week, but also, in part, to provide better answers for people searching for the 5 W’s. If this makes me a content farm, so be it. Now, if only I can get this thing to rank as high in search results as that first one …