The Inverted Pyramid: Legacy Media’s Ultimate Legacy

May 10, 2010

This is one in a series of posts based on or inspired by research for my Contemporary Media Issues class on how the challenges and opportunities associated with presenting news online are affecting journalistic values.

It was invented in the age of the telegraph yet is as en vogue as ever in the age the iPhone. It’s perhaps legacy media’s ultimate legacy. I’m talking about the inverted pyramid.

The inverted pyramid is the structure virtually all breaking news stories, and many other hard news stories, follow: Important stuff up top, less important stuff at the bottom. The form means that readers who don’t make it to the end of the story — either because the telegraph line went dead, the typesetter ran out of space, the businessman’s lunch break ended or the Web surfer received an instant message — can still make sense of what they read and walk away with the main gist.

Journalism has a love-hate relationship with the inverted pyramid,” the Poynter Institute’s Chip Scanlan wrote in 2003:

Its supporters consider it a useful form, especially good for breaking news. The inverted pyramid, or at least its most substantial element “the summary lead,” is used widely and is one of the most recognizable shapes in communications today. You’ll find it on the front and inside pages of most newspapers, as well as in stories distributed worldwide by The Associated Press, Reuters, and other news services elsewhere on the Internet.

Critics of the inverted pyramid say it’s outdated, unnatural, boring, artless, and a factor in the declining readership that newspapers have been grappling with for decades.

The inverted pyramid, its critics say, is the anti-story. It tells the story backward and is at odds with the storytelling tradition that features a beginning, middle, and end. Rather than rewarding a reader with a satisfying conclusion, the pyramid loses steam and peters out, in a sense defying readers to stay awake, let alone read on.

Love it or hate it, the inverted pyramid itself is not going to peter out anytime soon. It’s tailor-made for the way people consume news online, where they really could exit a story at any moment.

  • People consume a lot of their online news at work, either on their lunch or coffee break or when they should be working. Either way, they’re more likely to be skimming rather than thoroughly reading.
  • It’s well documented that, even if they have the time for it, people dislike reading long articles on computer screens. It strains their eyes and, unless they use the AutoPager Firefox extension, they have to keep clicking to get to the next page.
  • There’s a whole “world of interactivity,” as a college professor discussing laptops in the classroom recently put it during a panel discussion, competing for audiences’ attention.
  • For people out and about on mobile devices, real life insists upon itself more so than if one’s curled up on the couch with a newspaper or in the computer chair browsing RSS feeds.

Since it is sticking around, there’s something else journalists should know about the inverted pyramid. Scanlan hinted at it when he cited critics’ complaint that it “is at odds with the storytelling tradition.” The inverted pyramid format, it turns out, is extraordinarily difficult for the human mind to process.

The structure asks journalists to largely ignore the chronological, spacial and social relationships according to which our brains naturally organize information and instead organize information according to newsworthiness, something none of us is hardwired for. One researcher called it “one of the most unstable architectural forms the mind can conceive.”

The mind has a much easier time with narratives, as they mimic the way we naturally perceive and communicate about events.

While journalists should seek out more user-friendly story structures, often this is not realistic. No one’s going to start a story about a killer hurricane, “A little over a week ago, several thunderstorms converged off the cost of Africa.” While journalists might be boxed in — pyramided in? — for the text portion of their coverage, they still have options when it comes to which multimedia pieces they pair with this text.

A study published last year by four University of Missouri journalism scholars found that the cognitive stress audiences experienced when reading an inverted pyramid article carried over to accompanying video presentations. Users who had just read an inverted pyramid story, they found, remembered less about a video than users who saw the same video but had just read a narrative story.

Journalists would be wise, then, to pair with narrative pieces videos that contain a lot of information that’s not included in the corresponding article. Videos that are largely supplementary and repeat a lot of the information contained in the article, meanwhile, are probably OK to match with inverted pyramid pieces. If journalists must pair videos with a lot of new content with inverted pyramid stories, perhaps appending videos with a narrative caption might help minimize the damage.

One Response to “The Inverted Pyramid: Legacy Media’s Ultimate Legacy”

  1. mderoberts Says:

    great post, steve. it’s interesting how the inverted pyramid shaped so long ago has remained a must in news publication. micro-blogging on twitter has made this model even more powerful/important. i can sometimes be guilty of just glancing at headlines on cnn’s website in between assignments to get a brief tidbit of what’s going on in the world.

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