I have always been interest in journalism, which is why I took journalism classes in both high school and college. I was an opinion columnist and copy editor for the Liberty High School Sentinel for a year, and am only a few credits short of an Electronic Journalism minor from George Mason University. I have not worked professionally in a journalistic field, but bits and pieces of my journalism education have stuck with me. I know, from my own experience, that the ‘Five W’s and an H‘ are among the first things that journalism students learn in their first year.
What are the five W’s and H, you ask? They are a reminder to writers that every news story should answer at least six basic questions (when applicable): Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?
Let’s do an experiment with a local Associated Press story hosted on WTOP.com: 7 Children Hurt in Fairfax Co. School Bus Accident.
- Who? Looks like 7 anonymous students in an unnamed ‘summer program’ and an unnamed 18 year old driver. I’ll give them a half-point, but they should have been a lot more detailed about who these students were and, most importantly, they should have named the driver of the SUV.
- What? School Bus vs. SUV accident. One point!
- When? 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday. One point!
- Where? Well, the title says ‘Fairfax Co[unty]’ and the dateline says ‘Vienna, VA’ . . . but the story itself doesn’t mention a location at all. No street name, no intersection, no neighborhood. Zero points.
- Why? Um, good question. All it really says is that police cited the driver of the SUV for ‘failure to yield’, but that’s not much of a ‘why’. Acceptable statements would have been something like ‘police believe the driver was [drunk/distracted/making a right turn in front of the bus/running a red light/etc.]. Zero points.
- How? No explanation of the severity of the accident or anything about how it happened. Zero points.
The Associated Press gets 2.5 points out of 6 . . . that’s a score of 41.6 percent, which is an F in any journalism class I ever took. WTOP.com gets a dishonorable mention for running the story on their site in such a sorry, unfinished state without a good reason (this kind of half-story would be acceptable as a placeholder during a major, breaking story while a more full story is being written).