Here’s a test: are you going to make it to the fourth paragraph of this article? Statistically, the chances are slim. Most of us, it turns out, just skim the surface when we read news stories; the majority don’t get past the headline. You might not think this really matters for a radio review (even if it’s a riveting one), but what if the context provided lower down in a story would radically change how it is perceived, if only the reader could get that far?
Welcome to How to Read the News, a meta-analysis of the nuts and bolts of journalism running in snappy 15-minute segments on Radio 4. At the heart of episode one is the “inverted pyramid”: the way journalists are taught to write reports starting with the most newsworthy information at the top.
As the veteran radio presenter Jo Fidgen explores, that means breaking every rule we learned about telling stories as children (start at the beginning, end at the end). Instead of proceeding chronologically, news reports begin in the middle or with the most recent development. The basic information of what happened first comes much later on. If you haven’t been following the twists and turns of the story to date, it’s easy to get lost.
Apparently, the inverted pyramid dates back to the era of the American Civil War, when journalists filed their copy via telegraph, which was both glitchy and expensive, incentivising them to lead with the most gripping information. But technology has moved on a bit since then (I’ll be filing this review over email, so I have no such excuse for “burying the lede” – putting essential information further down). Is it time reporting did too? Might more people engage with the news if it was written in a more accessible way? Or is it the reader’s fault if they fail to go beyond the headline?
Anyway, if you’ve reached this point, congratulations. Clearly, you don’t need the BBC’s tips for decoding journalism. But How to Read the News is a fun listen, all the same.
How to Read the News
BBC Radio 4; available on Sounds
This article appears in the 10 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Year of Voting Dangerously