The wrong questions

Monday 25th July 2011

WHAT, when, where, which, why and how. But which of these interrogative words interests you most, dear reader? And why?

Researching this question led me (via Wikipedia of course) to discover the ‘inverted pyramid’, which is ‘a metaphor used… to illustrate the placing of the most important information first within a text. It is a common method for writing news stories and is widely taught to journalism students’.

(The article pays no heed to the question of who exactly decides what’s ‘most important’.)

The pyramid approach assumes that the readers’ primary concern is for the facts, as in this recent example…

The US is on the brink of a major economic crisis after negotiations between Barack Obama and Republican Congressional leaders over the national debt dramatically broke down on Friday.

…which covers at least four of the pyramid’s essential ‘Five Ws’ and fits a format which, I am told, ‘is valued because readers can leave the story at any point and understand it, even if they don’t have all the details’.

I take serious issue with the implication that understanding requires only scattered facts.

Maybe it’s my obsession with the old divergent/convergent thing, but When and Where give us only temporal and locational details, while Who, What and Which simply identify people, their actions and the results thereof. Objective facts are not the story per se, but the context. There is more to Hamlet than ‘Troubled Prince’s Revenge, Denmark, ages ago’.

In a Facebook post that attracted little attention, poet Michael Wilson sums this up neatly:

Someone wrote the world’s good deeds on the back of a postage stamp. Someone wrote its ills on the head of a pin. All the grey areas fitted neatly on the whole of the Kent countryside.

He’s right. But we live in an age of superficiality. Sound bites are to the fore, with full consideration of causes and reasons reduced to ‘background’.

So, I ask: why do we accept such trivialising? and how can we stop the spread of this veneer disease?

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