August 22, 2002

Training editor, The Cincinnati Enquirer


Waving his daughter’s yellow plastic wrench, Michael Roberts gave fellow journalists and journalism students a “tool” they can use: four vital ingredients every story should have.

Framing a story is like building a house. Just as you determine how many rooms the house should have, you focus on the main idea of your story and what you want to say. A poorly framed story is vague and pointless, and your writing suffers. Good adjectives cannot make up for a bad story or bad idea.

“This is a tool (not a rule) to get a handle on the story and break it down,” Roberts said. “Framing makes the story easier to write. If you lay the foundation, you’re free to be a much better writer.”

One of the leaders in the training movement across the country, Roberts had conference participants pick a story and find ways to make it better. Focus the story by deciding the main idea and, after reporting, run the information through this checklist: news, context, impact and human dimension.

  • News is the event, new information, basic facts; it tells the reader what happened.
  • Context is the story’s background and history, its relationship to things around the news, the bigger picture; it tells readers what’s normal, surprising or how similar things are dealt with elsewhere.
  • Impact tells readers what the news affects or changes, now and in the future; it tells readers who benefits, who suffers and what they can do about it.
  • Human dimension illustrates or portrays how the story effects the lives of real people; it provides details, textures, emotions, colors to convey experience.

According to Roberts, Gannett pushes the “five-graph” rule. The four ingredients should be in the first five paragraphs. Let readers know what the four ingredients are and develop them later in the story.

Roberts said the story should focus on the news. Of course, the news is relative, depending on what paper you work for.

If you are writing a 20-inch story, think in terms of an outline and break it into four parts. Pick the news, put it in context, be clear on its impact, and put it in human dimension.

For example, when covering a city council, the news is not the council meeting. The news is that the council is looking for $1 million to build a skateboard park.

Readers will want to know where the money is going to come from, if taxes will rise, where the park will be built – in their back yards? – and whether it will be safe.

“You shouldn’t be sitting in a meeting,” Roberts said. “You should be telling the impact on people. Writers should make a case for ‘doing this instead of that.'”

Of the four ingredients, Roberts is on a personal crusade to have writers lead with impact. Say what the story is about as quickly as you can, he said.

“Lead with impact,” Roberts urged. “It will change the way you think and write. It will change the way your story sounds.”

Impact is the best of the four ingredients because it has immediacy; it lets the reader know what the news is. Impact leads to a fully realized story that has all four components.

Roberts said it is not a good idea to begin a story with context because readers won’t know what you are talking about.

Human dimension is present in the anecdotal lead, which Roberts doesn’t like. Anecdotal leads are tricky unless you can get the news near the top instead of having it buried five paragraphs into the story.

Impact is also anecdotal, but the key is that the writer must be absolute, giving precise terms of the news event.

“If the writer can’t figure out the impact, how is the reader going to?” Roberts asked. The bottom line is to answer readers’ main question: “What does this mean to me?”

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Bill Mitchell is CEO and publisher of the National Catholic Reporter. He was editor of Poynter Online from 1999 to 2009. Before joining Poynter, he…
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