May 21, 2003

Although the nut graf approach is most often associated with trend stories, analytical pieces and news features, reporters also employ it to bring drama and context to breaking news. An example of this approach is this prize-winning deadline story by Mark Fritz of The Associated Press.

KARUBAMBA, Rwanda (AP) — Nobody lives here any more. Not the expectant mothers huddled outside the maternity clinic, not the families squeezed into the church, not the man who lies rotting in a schoolroom beneath a chalkboard map of Africa.

Everybody here is dead. Karubamba is a vision from hell, a flesh-and-bone junkyard of human wreckage, an obscene slaughterhouse that has fallen silent save for the roaring
buzz of flies the size of honeybees. With silent shrieks of agony locked on decaying faces, hundreds of bodies line the streets and fill the tidy brick buildings of this village, most of them in the sprawling Roman Catholic complex of classrooms and clinics at Karubamba’s stilled heart.

Karubamba is just one breathtakingly awful example of the mayhem that has made little Rwanda the world’s most ghastly killing ground. Karubamba, 30 miles northeast of Kigali, the capital, died April 11, six days after Rwanda President Juvenal Habyarimana, a member of the Hutu tribe, was killed in a plane crash whose cause is still undetermined.

The paranoia and suspicion surrounding the crash blew the lid off decades of complex ethnic, social and political hatreds. It ignited a murderous spree by extremists from the majority Hutus against rival Tutsis and those Hutus who had opposed the government. This awesome wave of remorseless mayhem has claimed 100,000 to 200,000 lives, say U.N. and other relief groups. Many were cut down while cowering in places traditionally thought safe havens: churches, schools, relief agencies. (The Associated Press, May 12, 1994)

You can read the entire story, included in the package of stories that won Fritz the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting and the Jesse Laventhol Award for deadline reporting from the American Society of Newspaper Editors at:

In those first four paragraphs, Fritz sets a horrific scene, bringing the reader face-to-face with the massacred victims in an African village. The vivid details answer the questions: “Where?” and “What?” and “Who?” in a powerful fashion that draws the reader into the story.

Fritz’s lead leaves unaddressed the “How?” and “Why?” Had he continued to describe the massacre, there’s a good chance the reader would become frustrated. That’s where the nut graf comes

Here, Fritz backs up to provide context for the scene in the lead, like a filmmaker drawing back from a close-up to a wide-angle shot. This is the “nut section,” that provides the background by addressing “How?” and “Why?” the scene described in the lead came to be.

Without context, the reader who is hooked by an arresting lead may feel left dangling. The image of the nut works whether we think of it as plant life or an industrial device. Consider what happens, for example, if you leave a lug nut off a car wheel; you run the risk of the car careening off the road. In the same way, a story that intrigues without providing context can quickly leave a reader feeling derailed.

When the nut graf became popular in the 1970s, many reporters and editors believed that a nut graf had to include a phrase that indicates the source of the conclusion — “officials say” or “neighbors and friends of the victim agreed.” Although the paragraph provided context and meaning for a story, it needed to rely on some authority other than the reporter to do so. Otherwise, they argued, the story read more like an editorial.

Although that mindset still lingers in some newsrooms, by the 1990s even The Associated Press permitted its reporters to draw conclusions when it was based on their reporting and expertise. Thus, Mark Fritz delivers his interpretation of the Rwandan massacre in the nut graf without attribution, but for one exception — the casualty estimates that he, appropriately, attributes to relief workers. Because the nut graf is designed to provide context for the story, and then should always be followed by the evidence supporting the conclusion, attribution is often unnecessary.

This piece was excerpted from “Reporting & Writing: Basics for the 21st Century.”

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Chip Scanlan is an affiliate faculty member at The Poynter Institute. From 1994-2009, he taught reporting and writing in its real and virtual classrooms and…
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